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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London