FitzGerald, Alexis James Oliver (1916–85), solicitor and economist, was born 4 September 1916, the fourth child of Alexis FitzGerald and his wife, Elizabeth O'Halloran. He was born, as he would later say himself, ‘under the clock’ in the Waterford Mental Hospital, where his father was resident medical superintendent. His siblings included Oliver FitzGerald (qv) and Patrick Alexis Martin FitzGerald (qv), both distinguished physicians. He was educated at Waterpark College (CBS), Waterford, and from 1931 at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, after which he read for the legal and political science degree at UCD, securing first place in politics – his classmate and close friend Thomas F. (Tom) O'Higgins (1916–2003), afterwards a government minister and chief justice, came first in economics. He regretted not having studied law so next turned to a legal education; two years later he gained first place in the LLB examination, and in 1941 qualified as a solicitor. For some years he practised in the office of the solicitor general for wards of court, P. J. Ruttledge (qv), a former Fianna Fáil government minister, who delegated to him much of the work of the office. Also in 1941 he was appointed a part-time assistant in political economy at UCD, where he lectured for the next twenty years, first in economics and later in commercial law.
In 1947, in partnership with Terence de Vere White (qv), he founded his own practice, which was joined by a much more senior lawyer, Jack McCann, as McCann, White & FitzGerald. Later known as McCann FitzGerald, it became one of the largest and most successful legal practices in the country, mainly because of Alexis FitzGerald's exceptional reputation for legal skills, high standards of integrity, and personal wisdom. Too reserved to engage personally in electoral politics, FitzGerald rejected vigorously the idea that involvement in what he saw as a noble profession necessarily involved the sacrifice of integrity. A committed supporter of Fine Gael he was, however, never narrowly political, as was strikingly demonstrated in 1975 by his perceptive obituary of Éamon de Valera (qv).
On 8 January 1946 FitzGerald married Grace (d. 1972), a daughter of John A. Costello (qv), with whom he had six children. He became an informal adviser to his father-in-law when Costello was elected taoiseach two years later, and worked closely with the economist Paddy Lynch (qv), who had been seconded from the department of finance as official economic adviser to the taoiseach. The two of them shared responsibility for Costello's conversion to aspects of Keynesianism, with which the minister for finance, Patrick McGilligan (qv), was already sympathetic. A speech by the taoiseach along Keynesian lines to the Institute of Bankers in November 1949 was followed by a 1950 budget that initiated the financing of capital investment by borrowing (although it may be doubted whether some of the projects later included in this category would have met Alexis FitzGerald's criteria for investments yielding a national return). FitzGerald also shared responsibility with Paddy Lynch for the creation of the Industrial Development Authority in 1949; however, a decade was to elapse before the IDA was released to attract foreign investment to Ireland as a result of a further radical shift in economic policy, foreshadowed by Costello's speech of October 1956 to the Fine Gael ard fheis, in which FitzGerald was also thought to have had a hand.
In the summer of 1958, in conjunction with his brother-in-law Declan Costello, FitzGerald founded the National Observer, a political journal which for several years significantly raised the tone of Irish political debate; in typical style, he described the object of the exercise as being to ‘chase all the sacred cows around our pasture’ in the hope that ‘some of them will expire from the exhaustion of the exercise’. He edited the journal until 1960. In 1969 he was elected to Seanad Éireann, where he served for twelve years. To an extent without parallel, before or since, his expertise was valued in that forum by successive governments of different complexions. In particular his contributions to and amendments of finance bills contributed greatly to the quality of financial legislation during those years. He greatly enjoyed his role as poacher turned gamekeeper. Having advised numerous clients on how to minimise their tax payments within the existing law, he had no compunction about then advising, from both the government and (more frequently) the opposition benches, on how to eliminate such loopholes. His interventions in these debates always reflected his concern for the public good – but also his puckish sense of humour.
FitzGerald's constructive engagement in many aspects of Irish life led him at various periods to membership of the Statistical and Social Enquiry Society of Ireland, the Economic and Social Research Institute, the Incorporated Law Society, the Irish Management Institute, the Royal Dublin Society, and the National University Graduates Association. In 1974–5 he served as chairman of the Irish Council of the European Movement.
In 1981, when the outcome of a general election offered an opportunity to Fine Gael and Labour to join together in forming a government, FitzGerald and his seanad colleague, Professor Jim Dooge, helped the Fine Gael leader, Garret FitzGerald (qv), to negotiate a joint programme with the new Labour leader, Michael O'Leary (qv) (1936–2006). He was then invited by the new taoiseach to become special adviser to the cabinet, a post unique in the history of Irish governments. He accepted this invitation, although it meant giving up his position as senior partner in the major legal practice that he had built up over the previous third of a century. Some Labour ministers were initially suspicious of what they may have seen as a measure designed to strengthen the Fine Gael wing of the government, but they soon came to appreciate his wise, informed, and independent views on issues coming before the government.
However, the frenetic tempo of events during the months that followed, as the new government fought to rescue the economy from near bankruptcy, did not suit FitzGerald's reflective temperament and philosophical cast of mind. Further, his deep sense of loyalty to the state and, from the late 1960s onwards, the rise of the provisional IRA which he saw threatening its security and integrity may have caused him to underestimate the importance of examining every possible avenue that might lead to a peaceful solution of the Northern Ireland conflict. In this he was perhaps also influenced by a concern lest the taoiseach become too emotionally engaged with Northern problems. His unique role as special adviser to the cabinet ended with the fall of the first FitzGerald government, after which he returned to McCann FitzGerald, as chairman of the practice.
FitzGerald died on 18 June 1985. His first wife, Grace, died in 1972, and in 1974 he had the good fortune to marry Barbara Sweetman (née Becker), whose husband, the business adviser and Fine Gael activist Michael Sweetman (qv), had been killed, also in 1972, with a number of Irish business leaders in an air crash at Staines, near London.
Alexis FitzGerald was a deeply religious person. Although his later years were marred by illness, and by concern for the future of what he saw as a weakly led Irish Roman catholic church, these preoccupations were alleviated by an increasing absorption with theology and biblical studies, and with the philosophy of Wittgenstein. His was a unique career of public service, exercised from the margins of politics, by a warm-hearted and humorous intellectual, with a great gift for friendship. A portrait of FitzGerald by Muriel Brandt (qv) hangs in the offices of McCann FitzGerald, Dublin; his papers are in UCD Archives.