Doctor Garret FitzGerald: Admired and respected politician whose efforts paved the way for the ending of the Troubles

The former Foreign Secretary Dr David Owen once said that, if heads of government and foreign ministers were asked to name the most likeable politician, their overwhelming choice would be Garret FitzGerald. The same was true within Ireland, where he is remembered as the leading elder statesman of the last half-century, a figure who broadened the country's horizons and contributed to the eventual ending of the Troubles. Critics would often preface their comments with the admission that he was quite the nicest man in Irish politics. His sincerity, charm and lack of guile were legendary: in fact they help explain why his career was such a striking mixture of outstanding success and occasional failures.

Perhaps his greatest political flaw was a failure to grasp that not everyone was as nice as himself. As a rationalist, he found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Ireland had more than its fair share of unreasonable people. Many of his greatest achievements were outside the Republic, where he excelled in his dealings with other premiers and foreign ministers. He became Taoiseach in difficult times which – while not as difficult as today's economic agony – simply overwhelmed his administration.

He had two spells as Taoiseach. Budget deficits and unemployment rose steadily, emigration to England and elsewhere increased, and tax rates remained very high. Only inflation was conquered.

The irony is that long before entering politics he had established himself as Ireland's best-known economist. Although a qualified barrister he never practised law, instead working for the national airline, Aer Lingus. Promoted rapidly through the ranks, he made major improvements to the airline's efficiency and profitability: the joke went that when he left he was replaced by four men and a computer.

Ten years of economic lecturing, consultancy work and freelance journalism followed. Yet remarkably he had no background in economics, since his first from University College, Dublin was in French and history. By the time he entered the Dail in 1969, representing the centre-right Fine Gael party, he was regarded as one of Ireland's brightest and best. He was one of a clutch of intellectuals who entered public life with a mission to modernise the economy and liberalise society.

At least part of his celebrateddrive came from his father. Desmond FitzGerald, like his son, packed agreat deal into life, by turns poet, revolutionary and cabinet minister. A friend of WB Yeats and TS Eliot, he fought in the 1916 rising against the British and, like his son, served as foreign minister.

In the dangerous 1920s his father's cabinet post gave the young FitzGerald an early insight into Irish political realities: he vividly remembered the family travelling in an army car with soldiers with machine-guns on guard. FitzGerald's mother, too, was out of the ordinary, as a Belfast Presbyterian who renounced her unionist background to become a suffragette, a socialist and an Irish nationalist. She too fought in 1916. FitzGerald's wife Joan, who married him in 1947 and died in 1999, was also a woman of note. Described as strong, intelligent and opinionated, she was regarded as probably the most influential partner of a premier in modern Irish history.

Garret was brought up in a literary house: there were six typewriters. His daughter Mary described growing up in an atmosphere of questioning and lively debate, recalling, "The main thing I would say is that my adolescence was one long argument." She was impressed when she discovered she could sometimes change her father's views.

When his Fine Gael party went into coalition with Labour in 1973 FitzGerald was the obvious choice for finance minister but was instead unexpectedly appointed minister for foreign affairs. He excelled in the post. He was once asked by a French minister, in the middle of a complex technical exposition, to slow down: FitzGerald was speaking in French at the time. Roy Jenkins, as president of the European Commission, admired what he described as the elegance of FitzGerald's French diction, admitting: "It was his cosmopolitanism which, together with his charm, most struck me. He made me feel provincial."

FitzGerald was one of the first to see that the European Community could be valuable not just for its own sake but as a means of diluting Britain's predominant economic influence over the Republic. Jenkins gave him credit for "exercising skilled and authoritative diplomacy" in carving out a role for Ireland as an integral part of the European Community."

When the Fine Gael-led government fell in 1977 he became leader of the staid party and in the next few years he ripped apart its comfortable conservative structures, cutting complacent local barons down to size. "He just went through the party like a bloody wolf," said one observer. As many of the old guard were booted aside, he broadened the party's appeal, persuading younger and more progressive elements to join.

In 1981 he became Taoiseach as head of a coalition. He had long seemed destined to hold that office yet when it came to him his sureness of touch deserted him. The problem lay in the gap between his aims and their practical realisation: he wanted to do something about Northern Ireland, to "desectarianise" (his word) southern society, to introduce social reforms and eliminate poverty. He was a reforming Taoiseach but he was regularly outwitted by the forces of reaction and by the superior cunning of his opponents in Fianna Fail, particularly Charles Haughey, its ruthless, unscrupulous and corrupt leader.

It was said of FitzGerald that he had "an engaging tactical ineptitude in domestic politics." An example was his 1986 attempt to introduce divorce as part of what he called a constitutional crusade. Bringing this about meant holding a referendum to remove the anti-divorce provision from the Republic's antiquated, Catholic-dominated constitution. FitzGerald originally decided such a vote could not be won and reluctantly shelved the idea. Then, on the strength of a single opinion poll showing a majority in favour of reform, he impulsively called a snap referendum.

But he had prepared no detailed strategy and in the weeks that followed the various anti-divorce elements fought a highly effective campaign. Haughey posed as a champion of family values, though much of Dublin knew he had a long-time mistress. The opinion poll results were reversed and FitzGerald suffered a crushing defeat. He and Haughey were to alternate in government several times as they spent years pitted against each other, idealistic moderniser versus wily fox. They were regarded as the Gladstone and Disraeli of Irish politics, one the essence of rectitude, the other his machiavellian counterpoint.

In one respect FitzGerald put himself alongside Gladstone in future history books. The Anglo-Irish agreement he signed with Margaret Thatcher in 1985 was in Irish terms a breathtaking achievement, allowing Dublin a formal role in Northern Ireland affairs. He was alarmed by the rise of support for Sinn Fein in the wake of the 1981 hunger strikes. He feared the situation in Belfast "could get out of control and threaten the whole island, for the IRA might seek a violent confrontation with the unionists and attempt to destabilise the Republic."

With Thatcher he pressed the need to reduce nationalist "alienation" so often that she would cry, "I do wish you would stop using that dreadful word, Garret." But they developed a personal chemistry, the Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe testifying that FitzGerald's "manifest sincerity over meeting after meeting could not have been more effective."

Some observers – including a number of republicans – view the accord as a vital early step in the peace process. It certainly established the foundations for the new Anglo-Irish relationship described by the Queen in Dublin this week when she spoke of the two countries having become "firm friends and equal partners." The accord was not his achievement alone, but it would never have come about without his negotiating skills, persistence and international reputation for integrity.

Much of the peace process came about through clandestine contacts with the IRA and Sinn Fein, an approach which FitzGerald opposed for many years. He believed secret talks could prolong the violence by deluding the IRA into believing that a British government would capitulate to them. He also distrusted Harold Wilson's Labour government, wrongly suspecting that it might opt for British withdrawal. He lobbied Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, urging him to persuade Britain "not to embark on a course of action that could be so fraught with dangers." FitzGerald's fears, as he later acknowledged, were groundless.

He was keen to reach out to northern unionists, some of whom initially warmed to him as a man who took their interests and concerns seriously, since he always emphasised that Irish unity could only ever come about with their consent. They recoiled, however, after the Anglo-Irish agreement. They did not appreciate the benefits to them of the modern nationalist theory as evolved by him, John Hume and other thinkers. Traditional nationalism had simplistically held that the heart of the problem was the British presence and that the solution lay in persuading the British to leave.

In today's prevailing view the key to the problem is not Britain but the Protestant community, the British presence is not imperialist but neutral, and that Irish unity would require Protestant consent. In the meantime the way ahead lay through removing the London-Dublin frictions.

This worked. FitzGerald noted with satisfaction: "The change from a position of polarised attitudes to one of common purpose has been the fundamental change of Anglo-Irish relations in the last 20 years."

On Wednesday night he was too ill to attend the state banquet in Dublin Castle. He would have heard the Queen acclaiming the new reality he helped create when she spoke of "the new partnership that we now enjoy, and the lasting rapport between us."

David McKittrick

Garret FitzGerald, barrister, economist and politician: born Dublin 9 February 1926; Taioseach of the Irish Republic June 1981–March 1982, December 1982–March 1987; married 1947 Joan O'Farrell (died 1999; two sons, one daughter); died Dublin 19 May 2011.

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