Who can replace Garret?

In his homily at Garret FitzGerald’s splendid funeral yesterday , Garret’s oldest friend the  theologian  Fr Enda McDonagh took up a theme Garret himself had written about just over a month ago .

Fr McDonagh said the fabric of Irish society had been undermined in recent years as activities in the church, politics, banking and development had undermined people’s belief in what were once “professions of trust”.


Garret himself had looked behind the traumatic events of the past couple of  years to consider the lack of civic morality in the State. First he attributed it to the fact that the British rulers and the Irish ruled had not shared a common faith and culture.  Later, independent Ireland failed to catch up. And here, the Church had to share blame.

Ireland’s popular Catholic Church, in opposition to the dominance of a ruling Irish minority of another faith and then to aspects of an alien UK system of government, could not be expected to instil much respect for public authority amongst the bulk of the population.

One might have hoped that all this would change with independence. Yet the Irish Catholic Church sought instead to bend the new State to its purpose, relying upon the strong personal faith of members of successive governments to secure its objectives. And it succeeded – up to a point. It secured censorship of books and films, and was successful in having contraception banned.

This is Garret the secularist talking, typically preferring to analyse than prescribe at this stage of his life.  In his political career his crusade for divorce and other social reform was fairly easily defeated at the time.  Garret the rationalist had a poor appreciation of the opposition’s fears of a slippery slope from divorce to legalising abortion, which he opposed as firmly as they did.

Was his vision of a pluralist Ireland too weak?  Compared to a  polemicist like Fintan O’Toole, he  pulled his punches. But then, he still thought like a politician, having to persuade and risk failure . Yet  he had put reform on the agenda  – divorce reform happening in 1995 – and it remains there to this day. His analysis of a lack of civic morality informs the call for all sorts of mooted reforms, like the further secularisiation of the State in areas like education and health. His death however exposes a lack of a champion to fashion them into a cause. 

As for the funeral itself, I had thought that funerals in modern English of whatever denomination couldn’t  hold a candle to the Anglican version of the Book of Common Prayer, which cloaks the improbable  claims of eternal life and meeting again in wonderfully poetical language written when modern English was young. But the FitzGerald funeral made me think again. It introduced a  human reality beyond the ritual and the trappings of State  through its intimate and familial character.

The singing of the Psalms in Irish by his granddaughters, the intercessions by family and friends including Mary Robinson and  Peter Barry, the presentation of gifts including  Garret’s last book, an Aer Lingus timetable and a photograph of him lovingly holding his first  great-grandchild, all were topped off by a litany of thanks from his children to all and sundry who had anything to do with Garret’s varied life, from the European Commission to the long suffering central statistics office. Quite magnificent.

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