Garret FitzGerald Lisbon October 2009
He was the son of Desmond FitzGerald, the first Minister for External Affairs of the Irish Free State following independence from the United Kingdom in 1922. At the time of his death, FitzGerald was the President of the Institute of International and European Affairs, had a column in The Irish Times and made occasional appearances on television programmes.
Garret FitzGerald was born in Dublin in 1926 into a very politically active family. His mother Mabel McConnell had worked for Under-Secretary for Ireland, James Macmahon decoding messages sent from London. Each day between 2:30 and 3:30 she would pass any information acquired to either Joe McGrath, Liam Tobin or Garret's father, Desmond. Desmond FitzGerald was London-born and raised. He was Minister for External Affairs at the time of his son's birth. FitzGerald senior, whose father had emigrated as a labourer from Skeheenarinky in County Tipperary, had joined the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and fought during the 1916 Easter Rising. Desmond FitzGerald had been active in Sinn Féin during the Irish War of Independence, and had been one of the founders of Cumann na nGaedheal. The party was formed to support the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which created the Irish Free State.
Although a senior figure on the "pro-treaty" side of Ireland's political divide, Desmond FitzGerald had remained friendly with anti-Treaty republicans such as Belfast man Seán MacEntee, a minister in Éamon de Valera's government, and father-in-law of Conor Cruise O'Brien. The families of Patrick McGilligan and Ernest Blythe were also frequent visitors to the FitzGerald household. FitzGerald's mother, the former Mabel Washington McConnell, was a nationalist and republican of Ulster Protestant descent, although some sources indicate that she became a Catholic on her marriage. Her son would later describe his political objective as the creation of a pluralist Ireland where the northern Protestants of his mother's family tradition and the southern Catholics of his father's could feel equally at home.
FitzGerald was educated at the Jesuit Belvedere College and University College Dublin (UCD), from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1946, later returning to complete a PhD which he obtained in 1968. He was deeply interested in the politics of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. A bright student who counted among his contemporaries in UCD his future political rival, Charles Haughey, who also knew Joan O'Farrell (the Liverpool-born daughter of a British army officer, Richard O'Farrell) a fellow student, whom FitzGerald married in 1947. Their children were John, Mary, Mark and Desmond.
Following his university education, in 1947 he started working with Aer Lingus, the state airline of Ireland, and became an authority on the strategic economic planning of transport. During this time he wrote many newspaper articles, was the Irish correspondent for the Economist Magazine, and was encouraged to write on National Accounts and economics by the Features Editor in The Irish Times. He remained in Aer Lingus until 1959, when after undertaking a study of the economics of Irish Industry in Trinity College, Dublin, he became a lecturer in economics at UCD.
Fitzgerald qualified as a barrister from the King's Inns of Ireland and spoke French fluently.
Garret FitzGerald was eager to enter politics, and it was suggested by several members of Fianna Fáil, including Charles Haughey and Michael Yeats, that he should join that party. Ultimately FitzGerald made his entry into party politics under the banner of Fine Gael. He attached himself to the liberal wing of Fine Gael, which rallied around the Just Society programme written by Declan Costello. FitzGerald was elected to Seanad Éireann in 1965 and soon built up his political profile. FitzGerald was elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1969 general election, for the Dublin South–East constituency, the same year he obtained his PhD for a thesis later published under the title "Planning in Ireland". He became an important figure almost immediately in the parliamentary party and his liberal ideas were seen as a counterweight to the conservative leader, Liam Cosgrave.
Difference in political outlook, and FitzGerald's ambitions for the Fine Gael leadership resulted in profound tensions between the two men. In his leadership address to the 1972 Fine Gael ard fheis in Cork, Cosgrave referred to the 'mongrel foxes' who should be rooted out of the party, a reference seen by many as an attack on FitzGerald's efforts to unseat him as leader.
After the 1973 general election Fine Gael came to power in a coalition government with the Labour Party with Liam Cosgrave as Taoiseach. FitzGerald hoped that he would take over as Minister for Finance, particularly after a good performance in a pre-election debate with the actual Minister for Finance, George Colley. However the position went to Richie Ryan, with FitzGerald becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs. It was a case of history repeating itself as FitzGerald's father had held that post in a government led by Liam Cosgrave's father W. T. Cosgrave fifty years earlier. His appointment to Iveagh House (the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs) would have a huge effect on FitzGerald's own career and the future of Fine Gael. Cosgrave was suspicious of FitzGerald's liberal ideas and believed that he had designs on the leadership. During his period in foreign affairs, Fitzgerald, developed a good relationship with Liam Cosgrave and all the tension that had existed between them in opposition disappeared.
The minister's role had changed substantially since his father's day. Ireland was no longer a member of the Commonwealth of Nations but had in 1973 joined the European Economic Community (EEC), now known as the European Union (EU). FitzGerald, firmly ensconced as Foreign Minister, was free from any blame due to other Ministers mishandling of the economy. If anything his tenure at the Department of Foreign Affairs helped him to achieve the leadership of the party. His innovative views, energy and fluency in French won him – and through him, Ireland – a status in European affairs far exceeding the country's size and ensured that the first Irish Presidency of the European Council in 1975 was a noted success.
FitzGerald's policy towards Northern Ireland, however, brought him into confrontation with the Roman Catholic church, whose "special position" in the Republic had until the Referendum of December 1972 been enshrined in the Constitution. FitzGerald in 1973 met Cardinal Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli and proposed to further modify the Republic's Constitution to remove laws with overtly Catholic foundations, such as the bans on divorce and contraception, as well as to relax the public stigmas in Northern Ireland towards mixed religious marriages and integrated education. Casaroli at first seemed receptive, and the Government formally submitted the proposal to the Vatican. FitzGerald's vision caused great consternation among the church's hierarchy, however, and in 1977 Pope Paul VI personally met with FitzGerald to tell him that "Ireland was a catholic country – perhaps the only one left – and it should stay that way. Laws should not be changed in any way that would make the country less catholic."
In 1977 the National Coalition of Fine Gael and Labour suffered a disastrous electoral defeat in the general election. Liam Cosgrave resigned as party leader and FitzGerald was chosen by acclamation to succeed him. In his new role as Leader of the Opposition and party leader he set about modernising and revitalising Fine Gael. He immediately appointed a General-Secretary to oversee all of this, a tactic copied from Fianna Fáil. Under FitzGerald, Fine Gael experienced a rapid rise in support and popularity. By the November 1982 election, it held only five seats fewer than Fianna Fáil (their closest ever margin until 2011; at times Fianna Fáil was nearly twice as large), with Fine Gael in the Oireachtas bigger than Fianna Fáil, who had been a dominant force in Irish politics for 40 years.
By the time of the 1981 general election Fine Gael had a party machine that could easily match Fianna Fáil's. The party won 65 seats and formed a minority coalition government with the Labour Party and the support of a number of Independent TDs. FitzGerald was elected Taoiseach on 30 June 1981. To the surprise of many Fitzgerald excluded Richie Ryan, Richard Burke and Tom O'Donnell, former Fine Gael stalwarts, from the cabinet.
Two fundamental problems faced FitzGerald during his first period: Northern Ireland and the worsening economic situation. A protest march in support of the H-Block hunger strikers in July 1981 was dealt with by FitzGerald harshly. On one occasion where he met with relatives of the hunger strike, he refused to meet the family of Bobby Sands, a MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and O/C of the Provisional IRA hunger strikers, and the first to die on this strike, along with the sister of Raymond McCreesh, who had died on 21 May. During the meeting two of Thomas McElwee's sisters, Mary and Nora, broke down and left the meeting. Mary McElwee stated to the media outside that "He's doing nothing, he's asking for suggestions". Fitzgerald then ordered Gardai to remove the families from the meeting. Fitzgerald's response was, in the words of Eamonn Sweeney, to "lay all the blame for the hunger strikers on the Republican movement and to suggest an immediate unilateral end to their military campaign".
The economic crisis was also a lot worse than FitzGerald had feared. Fine Gael had to jettison its plans for tax-cuts in the run-up to the election and a draconian mid-year budget was introduced almost immediately. The July Budget seemed exceptionally austere for a government dependent on Independent TDs support. However, the second budget introduced by John Bruton led to the Government's shock defeat in Dáil Éireann on the evening of 27 January 1982.
Viewing his defeat as a loss of support FitzGerald headed to Áras an Uachtaráin to request an immediate Dáil dissolution from the President, Patrick Hillery. When he got there, he was informed that a series of telephone calls had been made by senior opposition figures (and some independent TDs), including Fianna Fáil leader (and ex-Taoiseach) Charles Haughey, Brian Lenihan and Sylvester Barrett demanding that the President, as he could constitutionally do where a Taoiseach had 'ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann', refuse FitzGerald a parliamentary dissolution, forcing his resignation as Taoiseach and enabling the Dáil to nominate someone else for the post. The President is said to have angrily rejected such pressure, regarding it as gross misconduct, and granted the dissolution.
In the subsequent general election in February 1982, Fine Gael lost only two seats and were out of power. However, a third general election within eighteen months in November 1982 resulted in FitzGerald being returned as Taoiseach for a second time, heading a Fine Gael-Labour coalition with a working majority.
Deep economic recession dominated FitzGerald's second term as well as his first. The pursuit of 'fiscal rectitude' to reduce a high national debt required a firmer control of public spending than Labour found easy to accept. The harmonious relationship the Taoiseach developed with Tánaiste Dick Spring successfully avoided a collapse of the coalition for more than four years, despite tensions between other ministers, and enabled the Government to survive. Fine Gael wanted to revive the economy by controlling public spending and imposing cutbacks to reduce the public budget deficit.
The measures proposed by FitzGerald's Minister for Finance, Alan Dukes, were completely unacceptable to the Labour Party which was under enormous pressure from its support base to maintain public services. The two parties in Government found themselves in a stalemate position. They stopped the financial crisis from worsening but could not take the decisive action that would generate economic growth. With negligible economic growth and large scale unemployment, the FitzGerald Government was deeply unpopular with the public. The Fianna Fáil opposition added to the woes of the Government by taking a decidedly opportunistic and populist line in opposing every suggested reform and cutback.
As Taoiseach for a second time FitzGerald advocated a liberalisation of Irish society, to create what he called the non-sectarian nation of "Tone and Davis". His attempt to introduce divorce was defeated in a referendum, although he did liberalise Ireland's contraception laws. A controversial 'Pro-Life Amendment' (anti-abortion clause), which was stated to recognise the 'Right to Life of the Unborn, with due regard to the Equal Right to Life of the Mother' was added to the Irish constitution, against FitzGerald's advice, in a national referendum.
FitzGerald set up The New Ireland Forum in 1983, which brought together representatives of the constitutional political parties in the Republic and the nationalist SDLP from Northern Ireland. Although the Unionist parties spurned his invitation to join, and the Forum's conclusions proposing various forms of association between Northern Ireland and the Republic were rejected outright by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Forum provided the impetus for the resumption of serious negotiations between the Irish and British governments, which culminated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985. This agreement provided for a mechanism by which the Republic of Ireland could be consulted by the British Government under Margaret Thatcher regarding the governance of Northern Ireland, and was bitterly opposed by Unionists in Northern Ireland, whose MPs all resigned their seats in the British Parliament in protest. New elections were required to be held in Northern Ireland, in which the unionists lost the seat of (Newry and Armagh) to Seamus Mallon of the SDLP. During this period, on 15 March 1984, he was also invited to address a joint session of the US Congress, the fourth Irish leader to do so.
His government had also passed the Extradition Act of 1987, which ended the long-standing defence against extradition of suspects who could plead that an act of violence in Northern Ireland or Britain was a political offence.
While the Agreement was repudiated and condemned by Unionists, it was said to become the basis for developing trust and common action between the governments, which in time would ultimately bring about the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, and the subsequent republican and loyalist cease-fires.
In 1986, FitzGerald attempted to reshuffle his cabinet but certain ministers, including notably Barry Desmond refused to move from his Health and Social Welfare portfolio. The eventual outcome of the cabinet changes further undermined FitzGerald's authority. The new Progressive Democrats party was launched at the same time by Desmond O'Malley out of the divisions within Fianna Fáil. Ironically, it struck an immediate chord with many disenchanted Fine Gael supporters who had tired of the failure to fully address the economic crisis and who yearned for a coherent rightwing policy from FitzGerald. Seeing its support base under attack from the right only strengthened the resolve of FitzGerald's Fine Gael colleagues to break with the Labour Party approach, despite their leader's close empathy with that party.
Stymied by economic crisis, FitzGerald tried to rescue some of his ambitions to reform the State and he proposed, in the summer of 1986, a referendum to change the Constitution to allow for divorce. The proposed amendment was mired in controversy and the many accompanying legal changes needed were not clearly presented. Haughey skilfully opposed the referendum along with the Roman Catholic Church and landed interests worried about property rights. The defeat of the referendum sealed the fate of the Government.
In January 1987, the Labour Party members of the government withdrew from the government over disagreements due to budget proposals. FitzGerald continued as Taoiseach heading a minority Fine Gael government and proposed the stringent budgetary cutbacks that Labour had blocked for some four years. Fianna Fáil returned to power in March 1987, after Fine Gael were heavily defeated in the 1987 general election. The Progressive Democrats won some 14 seats mainly from Fine Gael. Although Haughey did not have an overall majority when it came to a vote the Independent Socialist TD Tony Gregory voted against Fitzgerald but abstained on Haughey, seeing Haughey as the "lesser of two evils" . The reason for this was Gregory's opposition to the Anglo-Irish agreement along with his strong personal dislike for Fitzgerald. Haughey was elected Taoiseach on the casting vote of the Ceann Comhairle.
FitzGerald retired as leader of Fine Gael immediately after the election by the Dáil of Charles Haughey as Taoiseach, to be replaced by Alan Dukes. His autobiography All in a Life appeared in 1991, immediately becoming a best-seller. He retired completely from politics at the 1992 general election. His wife, Joan, predeceased him, dying in 1999 after a long illness.
After that FitzGerald wrote a weekly column every Saturday in The Irish Times, and lectured widely at home and abroad on public affairs.
In a leading article on his death the Irish Times said that
He was an extraordinary Irishman who fashioned our future in so many ways.and that he was the papers longest-serving contributor and columnist, for over 57 years. He came out of retirement to campaign for a "yes" vote in the second Irish referendum on the EU's Treaty of Nice, held in 2002. He held the post of Chancellor of the National University of Ireland from 1997 to 2009. In March 2000, Fitzgerald was on the board of directors of Election.com, when it conducted the world's first public election ever held over the Internet, which was the Arizona Democratic Primary, which was won by Al Gore; in that primary, voter turnout increased more than 500% over the 1996 primary.
FitzGerald took a leading part in the campaign for the second referendum on the EU's Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. He argued for Ireland to continue with European integration. FitzGerald has been scathing of the record of the Fianna Fáil led Government since 1997 on the economy and the national finances. He was a frequent, critic in his column in The Irish Times, of the loss of competitiveness that occurred and the inflation caused by the tax cuts and excessive public spending increases of the Celtic Tiger era. In 2009, FitzGerald received a new ministerial car, the first and only one to be purchased by the state since an economic recession hit the country in 2008. In 2010, FitzGerald appeared on RTÉ's "Top 40 Irishmen" list.
He was Vice-President of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland for his last 20 years.
In early 1999 it was revealed that some six years earlier, AIB and Ansbacher Banks wrote off debts of almost IR£200,000 owed by FitzGerald following the collapse of the aircraft leasing company, Guinness Peat Aviation, in which he was a shareholder. Chairman of AIB at the time, Peter Sutherland, was also a former director of GPA and had served as Attorney General under FitzGerald, prior to FitzGerald appointing him as Ireland's member of the European Commission. The Moriarty Tribunal investigated this matter, and compared the treatment by AIB of FitzGerald with their treatment of Charles Haughey. They found no evidence of any wrongdoing, indeed the Tribunal heard evidence as to the considerable hardship that FitzGerald went to – to the extent of selling of his family home – to repay the debt to the best of his ability.
The Tribunal concluded in their report:
In summary it would appear that in compromising his indebtedness with the Bank, Dr. Fitzgerald disposed of his only substantial asset, namely, his family home at Palmerston Road, a property which would now be worth a considerable sum of money. As in Mr. Haughey's case, there was a substantial discounting or forbearance shown in Dr. Fitzgerald's case. However in contrast with Mr. Haughey's case, Dr. Fitzgerald's case involved the effective exhaustion of his assets in order to achieve a settlement whereas Mr. Haughey's assets were retained virtually intact.On 5 May 2011, it was reported that FitzGerald was seriously ill in a Dublin hospital. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny sent his regards and called him an "institution". He was put on a ventilator. On 19 May, he died, aged 85, in the Mater Private Hospital in Dublin.
President Mary McAleese described him as a man steeped in the history of the State who constantly strove to make Ireland a better place for all its people.
His thoughtful writing, distinctive voice and probing intellect all combined to make him one of our national treasures. Above all, Garret Fitzgerald was a true public servant... Long after he departed active politics, Garret continued to contribute to public life through his voluminous writing and scholarship. His weekly columns in The Irish Times were essential reading for those who sought enlightenment on the issues and debates of the day.Taoiseach Enda Kenny said Dr FitzGerald was;
a truly remarkable man who made a truly remarkable contribution to Irelandand that;
his towering intellect and enthusiasm for life will be missed by everybody. He had an eternal optimism for what could be achieved in politics. You could not tire him out and his belief that politics and democracy would work for peace.Former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader John Bruton said FitzGerald would;
stand out as a man who changed Ireland and that he had changed attitudes to in the Republic to Northern Ireland and to Europe and that he saw that Ireland could do best in Europe if it contributed creatively to goals and ambitions of other members.Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger described FitzGerald as an intelligent and amusing man who was dedicated to his country.
His death occurred during the third day of the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland, an event designed to mark the completion of the peace process that, FitzGerald began with the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In response to his death, the Queen said of FitzGerald,
I was saddened to hear this morning's news of the death of Garret FitzGerald, a true statesman. He made a lasting contribution to peace and will be greatly missed.British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who was also in Ireland, said of him:
I watched him as a student of politics, rather than someone involved in politics, and he always struck me as someone who was a statesman as well as a politician, someone who was in politics for all the right reasons, and someone who made a huge contribution to the peace process bringing reconciliation for all that had happened in the past. And I think that today of all days with the state visit and the warm relationship between Britain and Ireland that he can see that some of his work being completed.On his visit to Dublin, US President Barack Obama offered condolences on the former Taoiseach's death, describing Dr FitzGerald as;
someone who believed in the power of education, someone who believe in the potential of youth, someone who believed in the potential of peace and who lived to see that peace realisedThere has been a call for Dublin Airport's Terminal 2 to be renamed the Garret FitzGerald Terminal after the former Taoiseach in light of his early career and lifelong interest in aviation.
In February 2012, Young Fine Gael announced that its annual Summer School would be renamed the Garret FitzGerald YFG Summer School.