GARRET FITZGERALD, who has been a constant presence, important influence and challenging voice in Irish public life for almost half a century, has departed. He was an extraordinary Irishman who fashioned our future in so many ways. He broadened our Irish identity to facilitate our membership of Europe; our acceptance of diversity; our sense of Irish, Catholic, Protestant and dissenter nationhood; our first uncertain steps on the road to a liberal agenda; and, most importantly of all, the new accommodation between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
He was the most intellectual politician in the Ireland of his generation and yet had the capacity to engage and educate the public on all political matters of his time: from national public deficits, to constitutional issues, to pluralism to things never heard of publicly until he mentioned them called “zygotes”.
Dr FitzGerald had an enormous influence in sculpting and shaping modern Ireland as we know it today. He did so as minister for foreign affairs from 1973 to 1977, and twice as taoiseach (1981-’82 and 1982-’87), opposite his rival Charles Haughey. Those were the days when he was characterised by the late Irish Timescolumnist and Haughey supporter John Healy as “Garret the Good”.
As minister for foreign affairs he had a great interest in the position of Ireland and small countries in the then EEC. He ensured that the first Irish presidency in 1975 was a success, organising other smaller states to oppose attempts by larger states to dominate policy-making.
But, his consuming interests were the advocacy of the liberal agenda and pluralist politics in Northern Ireland. He championed the first divorce referendum as taoiseach, which he lost, largely because his Fine Gael/Labour coalition hadn’t anticipated and prepared for the case that would clearly be made against it. He was extremely courageous to hold the first of five abortion referendums when the Pro-Life campaign was at its height and Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church were seemingly unbeatable forces.
His greatest legacy was the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985 when it was accepted by the British and Irish Governments for the first time that a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland could take place if a majority wanted it. It was a historic accommodation which laid the ground, much later, for the Belfast Agreement.
There are those who say that Garret FitzGerald did not achieve much in economic terms in coaliton with Dick Spring of the Labour Party. They are right. The truth is that if he did nothing else as taoiseach other than oppose the culture of Charles Haughey, as he predicted it and we now know it, he earned his place in history. But, he did much more in the Ireland of 30 years ago.
He continued to set the national agenda in his later years, challenging the parameters of national debate in his columns in The Irish Times. He is our longest-serving contributor and columnist, for over 57 years. He was an editor’s nightmare, constantly redrafting his Saturday columns to meet his sense of precision, sending two or three unexpected graphs as deadline approached because he loved figures. He graced this newspaper with his words, his wisdom, his many idiosyncracies and his worldwide experience of international affairs. He had something really worthwhile to say in his older years, especially in the circumstances in which we found ourselves in the last couple of years.