Obituary: Joan Fitzgerald

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The Independent Culture
JOAN FITZGERALD was probably the most influential partner of a premier in modern Irish history. She colluded so closely with her husband Garret Fitzgerald when he was twice Taoiseach in the 1980s that many found it hard to establish where the influence of one ended and the other began.

The then foreign minister and deputy premier Peter Barry recalled her as "a huge source of strength" for her husband. "Her sensible counselling and deep knowledge of politics meant that he frequently sought her advice." Each was instinctively devoted to the other, with attributes that perfectly complemented the other's.

Although disabled for over two decades by crippling arthritis which weakened her spine (an illness complicated by a glandular condition), Joan Fitzgerald nevertheless remained deeply involved in Ireland's political life during a period of violent upheavals.

She had known both her husband Garret, her junior by two years, and his chief rival Charles Haughey since their time together in University College Dublin in the 1940s, where she studied Economics. She had well-formed liberal views but her commitment was less to the centre-right Fine Gael cause than to her husband personally. In younger days she had voted for the Fianna Fail founder Eamon de Valera.

She was born Joan O'Farrell to Irish parents in Liverpool. Her father had worked for the British diplomatic service in Africa and returned with malaria. After developing a progressively worsening mental illness, he was hospitalised at Bray near Dublin following violent outbursts. Joan and her mother moved to live with her aunt and godmother in Switzerland, before returning to Dublin at the age of 10.

She blossomed at University College Dublin, enjoying a hectic social life rather more than her economics studies. She met her future husband at a college society in 1943. He proposed to her two years later, was rebuffed, but tried again with more success later in the year. Fearful her father's mental illness might be congenital, she was initially wary of having a family herself.

Their early home life was untroubled: he worked as research and schedules manager for Aer Lingus, and the family lived in a large house in leafy Eglinton Road in Dublin's Ballsbridge area. After Fitzgerald moved into the teaching and journalistic fields, then politics (he was a Senator from 1965 and a TD - the Irish equivalent of an MP - from 1969 to 1992), their circumstances became more difficult. They decamped to a more modest home further south in Goatstown. On Garret's return to power as foreign minister in the 1970s they moved again to more spacious accommodation in Palmerston Road.

After serving as foreign minister under Liam Cosgrave, Garret Fitzgerald replaced him as Fine Gael leader in 1977. Political rivals saw the steelier instincts of Joan Fitzgerald reflected in the uncharacteristic toughness her husband displayed in weeding out his front bench in 1981. "She had all the gossip and knew exactly what was going on," said a family friend. "She differed from Garret in that she was grounded in daily life and more practical. She had very strong views on people." She was also naturally gregarious and grew to appreciate the company of the more vibrant public figures.

Joan was thrust into public life when Garret Fitzgerald secured power for nine months from June 1981 amid the maelstrom caused by the IRA hunger strikes. With black flags hanging from windows opposite their home that summer and a serious riot hundreds of yards away near the British Embassy, the tension was palpable even in middle-class south Dublin.

In November 1982 (the second general election of the year) Fine Gael pulled off a remarkable recovery, from just 30.5 per cent of the poll and 43 seats in 1977 to 39.2 per cent and 70 seats in the 166-seat Dail. Joan was the eminence grise behind Fine Gael's more radical moves from 1982 until losing power in 1987. It was testimony to her acumen and closeness to the action that Haughey's Fianna Fail troops were never allowed to forget they had not only to defeat the Fine Gael leader's ideological agility but also the shrewd directness of his partner.

Fine Gael was then effectively a volatile coalition of mostly urban liberals and high-minded Catholic conservatives, evolved from Michael Collins's pro-Treaty side in the 1922-23 civil war. Leadership required a careful sense of balance. Many felt Joan guided Garret towards not defining policy too closely while campaigning.

Forced in later years into a wheelchair, she regularly joined him on election tours of the country by coach. Joan, whose religious conviction and liberal theological opinions were clear and deep, gave unequivocal endorsement to his launching a "constitutional crusade" in 1992 to reform the doctrinaire elements of the Irish Republic's Constitution.

The aim was to defuse suspicion towards Dublin among mainstream northern Unionists and thus facilitate north-south diplomacy. It came unstuck as Fine Gael's moral arch-conservatives rejected the leader's line under relentless pressure from "pro-lifers". In 1983 and 1986, on abortion and then divorce, Haughey exploited this rift by indulging the "pro-family" Catholic right to undermine Fitzgerald's liberals. The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, a decisive effort to rescue constitutional nationalism amid a growing IRA threat, fared better, even if lack of consultation angered Unionists.

Countless daily phone calls between Fitzgerald and his wife while in power underlined her proximity to decision-making. She also rang him with the family shopping list as he held cabinet meetings. Never the most disciplined person in the chair, he allowed inordinately long discussion, prompting ravenous ministers to disappear for takeaway junk food.

Privately, she was a warm host but also a formidable matriarch. Those who criticised Garret in her presence were quickly made to regret it. His successor the former finance minister Alan Dukes described her as "very strong, very determined. Joan was prepared to discuss politics at any time of the day or night."

When Fine Gael were replaced in power by Haughey's Fianna Fail in 1987 after four turbulent years, it came as a relief to Joan. During the campaign she had let slip that she "wouldn't really mind" if her husband's party lost.

Even after their retirement, however, the Fitzgeralds were put under great strain when their large investments in the air-leasing giant GPA turned sour. The big house is shared nowadays with their son Mark, head of a leading Dublin estate agency. Theirs was one of the strongest marriages in the bear-fight of Irish politics.

Joan remained ambivalent about her husband's success, explaining that his becoming Taoiseach meant "he belongs to the nation, not to me". She was against his entering into politics, yet when he did she gave him complete backing.

Joan O'Farrell: born Liverpool 24 March 1923; married 1947 Garret Fitzgerald (two sons, one daughter); died Dublin 12 June 1999.