Garret FitzGerald

How sadly ironic that Garret FitzGerald should die at the moment when his main mission in politics has literally been crowned with fulfillment. In Towards a New Ireland and throughout his career he championed his big idea, uncomfortable to unreflective nationalists, that unionists were as Irish as they were and had to be understood in their own terms. This idea was accompanied by attacks on “partitionism,” the paradox of verbally aggressive but negative republicanism that only served to drive unionism further into  a corner and leave northern nationalists more isolated.

The profile of Garret’s background could not have been better designed. His mother a northern Protestant, his father an early Sinn Feiner, both of them in the GPO in Easter Monday 1916, where if my memory is correct his father was involved in running an improvised canteen. As he put it in his monumental autobiography All In A Life :”As a  result  of the events in which my parents had been so deeply involved these two communities had with tragic results  had been left by the states which had commanded their respective allegiances to fend for themselves for half a century within the claustrophobic confines of six counties of this island.”

Garret’s attempts to draw them out were not quickly rewarded. Along with others he may have pushed too hard at Sunningdale. The New Ireland Forum he inspired was typical too theoretical and was dismissed by Charles Haughey the wily operator of Irish politics who was in most ways the complete opposite of Garret its philosopher.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was denounced by the unionists he professed to respect. But he had felt compelled to make a choice, and that was to establish a formal basis for the British –Irish relationship to deal with the North and search for a coherent political response to the rise of Sinn Fein. His success here as in most things was mixed but his achievement was bring all the issues into the light rather than try to fix them in dark corners which had been so often the Irish way, or ignore them altogether, like the British. That is why he was such a persistent critic of a security only policy of the decade of the mid seventies to the mid eighties.

Above all at this sad moment, he must be remembered for his personality, his willingness to  argue his case head- on with anybody,  whether with a big name or an ordinary citizen, without phoney charm or self importance.  His integrity and warmth was immediately apparent for all too see. A person of ideas is rare in any country’s politics. Garret was one of the best. He expressed in words the mission of the peace process without which it might have remained a muddle of disparate aims and a failure.   His best ideas will long survive him.

Adds A few personal notes. Ever keen to oblige, Garret agreed to do an interview out of RTE Montrose  for me for BBC NI  on the  day the British ambassador Christopher Ewart Biggs was assassinated. The emergency cabinet meeting overran ( unsurprisingly, with the talkative Garret as foreign minister),  but still he made the effort. With outriders sirens’ blaring, he just missed live TV  and had to record. Interviews with Garret  were never soundbites.

A few years ago I visited his modest home to record an interview for an archive film on the 70s. He waved me into his kitchen to join him in poring over voluminous sheets of copied baptismal records of his Limerick forebears.  Both of us belonged to generations whose forebears had their birth certificates destroyed in the Four Courts conflagration.

The British politician he most resembled was undoubtedly Roy Jenkins, who said of Garret, ” he made us look provincial”. Both were ardent Europhiles, both scholars of history with a statistical bent; Jenkins of Victorian railway timetables, (a hobby he shared with Harold Wilson), Garret of airline schedules from his days working for Aer Lingus.

Garret told me that on the morning Jenkins suddenly died, he was writing him a letter. Jenkins’ wife Dame Jennifer sent it on to him.

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  • JR

    Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

  • Henry94

    We can celebrate a life lived to the full. The Anglo-Irish Agreement and the moving forward of the liberal social agenda were his outstanding achievements. His passing is a very sad note in a week that has been an outstanding success for the modern version of nationalism he espoused.

  • Sorry to hear of Garret’s death and sympathy to his clann. Strange that he died on the 30th Anniversary of the 1981 Hunger-Strike when his Government did nothing to help ten brave Irishmen not die in a lonely prison hospital…….

  • Sean Og

    RIP. A big man in Irish politics.

  • I am also very sad to hear about his loss. He was one of Ireland’s most enlightened politicians.

    He deserves to be honoured and favourably remembered.

  • Garret FitzGerald would have been a great man in any country. We were fortunate that he was Irish. He began what became the peace process. The Anglo Irish Agreement has changed and grown but it remains the foundation of the GFA and the determination to win a United Ireland by democratic means. RIP Garret FitzGerald

  • Turgon

    To be fair about Fitzgerald he was a man opposed to violence and murder and had no truck with supporting it: very unlike other RoI politicians of the time. He also appears to have been a fairly decent and honest man: again in contrast to many others of the time.

    However, any claim he might have had to respect unionists was irrevocably shattered by the Anglo Irish Agreement. One does not demonstrate respect for unionists by keeping them out of an agreement about themselves; telling lies about the scope and nature of that agreement and undermining their professed desires.

    Fitzgerald may have felt that the Agreement helped unionists. However, such paternalistic arrogance towards a million people is utterly unacceptable: from many other angles it would be called colonialism.

    In addition in the short term the Agreement if anything increased IRA violence as the terrorists thought that the British government was willing to undermine and forgoe the principle of consent set out previously. As such the IRA clearly regarded the Agreement as a stepping stone for them. That Fitzgerald, truly an opponent of terrorism gave such accidental succour to murderers is a sad inditement of his complete lack of understanding of Northern Ireland in general and unionists in particular. How many extra deaths did Fitzgerald accidenally cause?

    That he thought he knew about us in direct contradiction of all tegh evidence further demonstrates his arrogance.

    On a separate note about this obit. Brian Walker is nothing other than nice about Fitzgerald: fair enough and common in obits. That stands in stark contrast to the attempts to blacken Bill Craig’s name with hersay and completely unsubstantiated claims about drinking which Walker did on his obit thread on Craig.

  • Mick Fealty

    I knew Garrett slightly.

    The first time I met him was at an ESRC conference on devolution (when we had none to speak of) back in March 2003.

    I started off somewhat in awe of the man who had been taoiseach when I left Ireland; and ended up wondering when on earth he was going to stop talking.

    He thoroughly confounded his own political party by romancing them and then foisting onto them a set of social democrat values they were never entirely comfortable with.

    In the early 80s one memorable Rowel Friars cartoon in the BelTel featured himself and Charlie Haughey as angel and devil respectively. Backed by a mirror, their reflections suggested that the opposite might be true.

    We have travelled a very long way since those paranoid days.

    He worked right up to end, using his Saturday column in the Irish Times as though he were a one man think-tank, constantly floating ideas, some good, some bad, some bordering on the whacky. All of them in aid of improving the Republic his father had fought for, and which he had served with quiet but passionate devotion.


  • otto

    Not sure I’d describe the timing of Garrett’s departure as “ironic”.

    His mother was an Ulster Protestant, his father London Irish. Both were part of the 1916 rising. He devoted his life to the development of the state they worked to create and to reconciliation and regard amongst the peoples from who his family is derived.

    And he died on the day that the Queen and the President of Ireland made speeches in Dublin Castle which exactly endorsed his life’s work.

    When they make the movie of Garrett’s life people won’t believe the timing of the closing scenes isn’t poetic license.

  • I met Garrett and Conor Cruise O’Brien around the end of 1972 beginning of 1973. Corrymeela at that time was my drop-in centre; each of them spent week-ends there as group helpers. Garrett wanted to return for a second week-end but became an Irish government minister instead – the Minister for Foreign Affairs in March 1973.

    His 1972 ‘Towards a New Ireland’ proposal suffered from the same defect as John Hume’s 3-strand analysis; it attempted to shoe-horn a Unionist foot and a Nationalist foot into Nationalist shoes.

  • Framer

    I spoke to Garrett at the Irish Association’s St Patrick’s Day lunch just two months ago in Belfast where he was as engaged and discursive as ever.

    He intervened in the discussion after Liam Clarke spoke to make the interesting point that Northern Ireland was about the last place in Europe where working class parties were in power.

    He seems to have become somewhat anti-religious as he grew older which is odd considering he acted as his mother’s tutor in her (late) conversion to Rome.

    A pity that he had to agree the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Thatcher and the FO, which failed by virtue of leaving Articles 2 & 3 in place and was of course imposed over the heads of the Unionists which was exactly what he had argued against.

  • FitzGerald was why I pursued Ireland. His letter proudly hangs in my office.

  • Nunoftheabove

    ArdEoin Republican

    No opportunity wasted to score a cheap point or to blame others for misery inflicted by people you support even when, in the particular case you mention, the misery was, in many senses, inflicted upon themselves.

    No normal middle-of-the-road nationalist let alone republican did have or could reasonably have had any illusions whatsoever about the probability of Fitzgerald doing anything public or substantial to shore up the Provisional movement at that time other than to advise the British of the likely consequences of their actions with regard to the prisons or to the security strategy more generally.

    Fitzgerald didn’t make any bones about his thoughts on the north and never played the opportunist green card in the way that the Haughey did and which republicans appear content to allow themselves to have been at least in part fooled by and to have stupidly invested some expectations within.

    Fitzgerald may have been many things but he certainly wasn’t the sort of shady shadowy bullshitter your lot placed some belief in at the time, to say nothing of the nature of the entirely political and military leadership you pledged your visually-disabled loyalty to to a hugely unquestioning extent for a very long time. Part of your distaste for SF now is nothing other than your understandable feelings of shame and self-loathing that you believed them and believed in them to begin with.

    I have to tell you very directly that your apparent principle of republicans having no responsibility for the misery caused to others by virtue of having no choice other than to do what they do and to blame the British state for actions taken entirely at the discretion of the perpetrators is as utterly immoral as it is profoundly dishonest.

  • Neville Bagnall

    “Quiet but passionate devotion”. Indeed.

    May he rest in peace. But I sincerely hope that we will see his like again.
    We need more people in public life for whom it is a duty and not a career.
    Like the President said, a renaissance man.

    His stature will continue to grow. A true and rare statesman.

  • View from the Ditch

    “Garret the Good”, as I recall was a favourite name in the 80’s and one which he lived up to.

    I daresay events of the last couple of days with the Queen’s visit must, if he had been aware of it during his illness have seemed like the culmination of his lifes work and been almost as satisfying as outliving his contemporaries who possessed “flawed pedigrees”. RIP.

  • Pete Baker

    Crooked Timber’s Maria Farrell’s personal tribute is worth reading.

  • SK

    “I do not want to side track this obit thread”

    Then don’t.

    Garret Fitzgerald was a man of intelligence, decency and great humility. I disagreed with much of his politics but I respect him as one of the truly honest politicians in an era of chancers.

  • Many thanks for posting that link to Maria’s personal tribute, Pete.

  • Erasmus

    A great man. The Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave some recognition to the Northern nationalist identity, partially alleviated the injustice done to them in the 1921 settlement and, and for the first time allowed NI’s fundamental bi-ethnicity to have a measure of reflection in its general governance, was his finest hour.
    My only criticism of it is that it did not go far enough.It says a lot about the supremacist streak within some sections of unionism that even this minimalist gesture towards NI nationalists could have aroused such fury — like spoiled children being made share their playpen.

  • Framer

    If all that was true Erasmus why did the Provos kill hundreds of people for another decade? Are the ‘supremacists’ not allowed to be concerned about the killings because of their flaws?

  • Erasmus

    Association, temporal or otherwise, does not mean causation.

  • PaddyReilly

    The story I like about him concerns his part-timer as a correspondent for some major London paper. Well he had just managed to get Fianna Fáil out and was on his way back from Áras an Uachtaráin, when the Observer or the Times or something phoned through to ask him to do a piece on the new regime.

    “I’m afraid I haven’t a lot of free time at the moment” says Garret. “Well bloody make time, that’s what we pay you for”, says your (English) man, unaware that he was addressing the premier elect of a neighbouring state. Garret did the piece. About the new régime. No doubt he put in a good word for them. He had a way with words. Some people said, he was inoculated with a gramophone needle.

    But that’s the trouble with countries like Ireland and Scotland. They will nearly always fail when there is a conflict of interest with England, because at any time so many of their people will be on England’s books. On the other hand though, it will never be enough to guarantee stability.

  • GavBelfast

    I was very sad to hear of his death, from up here he always seemed like such a thoroughly committed, good and decent politician – a contrast to others.

    Condolences to his family and friends.

  • Alf

    Sorry to hear about Garrett Fitzgerald. I think most unionists today would agree that he was a thoroughly decent man who had always had their best interests at heart.


  • antamadan

    re Turgon’s comments.

    Your views re the Anglo-Irish Agreement going over the heads of unionists had support. Mary Robinson didn’t sign the agreement despite being part of the (Irish Gov.) negotiating party, was precisely because of this. Why Noel Thompson ( a hero of mine) didn’t ask her ladyship about this on H&M BBC tonight is a mystery.

    However, An tAmadán disagrees (profoundly as Myles na gCapalín would [unnecessarily] say).

    Human nature being what it is, unionists as the top-dog were not interested in negotiating a settlement all those years ago. Unemployment was high, and yet almost three-times higher for gaels/catholics/nationalists/whatever. What parent’s of school-leavers from the benefiters of the status-quo would vote for equality that would have left their kids with less chance of a job. Obviously, with the shoe on the other foo,t and a norm of nationalist-supremecy, nationalists would have similarly fought tooth and nail against change/progression/movement towards equality.

    My guess is that Garret FitzGerald reluctantly decided he had to deal with the British Government, and this gave an incentive to unionists to get stuck in to finding a solution.

  • Crubeen

    Two names rank in my boog as great holders of the office of Taoiseach – Garrett Fitzgerald and Sean Lemass. Both reached out to the Unionists to offere reconciliation and a confirmation of their rightful place on this island, which others would deny to them as planters. and were met with opposition and indifference

    I note how Brian refers to Fitzgerald’s “modest home,” the mark of a man who was not in politics for what he could get out of it. The same was true of Lemass – his estate amounted to the value of a modest home and a few bob over. What a contrast with his son-in law!

    A good man – we need many more like him!

  • Jimmy Sands

    “his Government did nothing to help ten brave Irishmen not die”

    Shocking ingratitude given their contribution to his election victory.

  • Los Leandros

    May he rest in peace. But why so much sychophancy. Just because he espoused liberal/feminist dogma does’nt mean he was right. It’s just as plausible ( especially as the evidence on the damage of no fault divorce to children emerges ) to argue that his crusades were socially irresponsible. He was driven in these campaigns by the extremist liberal D4 media – he was afraid of these. It’s ironic that these forces yield much more power than their great bogeyman – the Catholic Church. Fitzgerald had no fear of the latter ; indeed he was quite lukewarm about Catholicism. Still, all credit to the Church for affording him a Requiem Mass. It seems the Church is more forgiving than it’s liberal enemies !.