Fitzgerald, Eugene (Gene) (1932–2007), politician, was born in Crookstown, Co. Cork, on 21 August 1932; he had at least one brother and one sister. Educated at Crookstown national school and Presentation Brothers' College, Cork, he lived most of his adult life in Bishopstown in the south-western suburbs of Cork city, but retained strong links with the countryside to the west. In his youth he became a member of Aherla Fianna Fáil cumann and later reminisced proudly about working with such party heroes as Sean Moylan (qv); he also played with Cloughduv GAA club. After school, Fitzgerald went into the waste disposal and haulage business and benefited from the economic boom of the 1960s. By 1973 he was manager and director of one of several plant-hire firms owned by the prominent Cork businessman and Fianna Fáil supporter William O'Brien. At the same time, Fitzgerald distinguished himself as a rising GAA administrator, serving on the Muskerry board and chairing the mid-Cork division for twelve years. He then graduated to the county board, becoming registrar (1969–72) and the GAA's principal organiser in Cork county and city. As county treasurer (1972–3) he was partly responsible for the construction of Pairc Uí Caoimh (which may have been linked to his wider interest in the redevelopment of the Cork harbour area). He later served as vice-president of the GAA county board while a full-time public representative.
Fitzgerald entered national politics in July 1972 when chosen as Fianna Fáil candidate in the Cork Mid by-election. Since the dáil majority enjoyed by Jack Lynch (qv) had been eroded through defections and by-election defeats, the by-election was potentially crucial for its survival. Fitzgerald was seen as the strongest local candidate; he combined an image of youth and energy with declarations that the national question could best be solved by Lynch's sober statesmanship than by destabilising 'extremists' who would bring the Northern Ireland troubles into the Republic. (This message was reinforced by a wave of northern violence during the campaign, including the 'Bloody Friday' and Claudy bombings, and British reoccupation of Derry 'no-go area'.) After a tightly organised and well-funded campaign, Fitzgerald was elected on a significantly increased Fianna Fáil vote.
Identified as potential front-bench material, in July 1973 Fitzgerald was nominated to the oireachtas joint committee on European legislation. In opposition (1973–7), he became known as a particularly vociferous heckler in dáil debates (reacting to oil-price rises by calling finance minister Richie Ryan 'the greatest Arab of them all'). The Fine Gael TD John Kelly (qv), who made Fitzgerald a particular target of his satirical wit, compared Fitzgerald's distinctive rasping voice to 'a coloratura fog-horn', and claimed that the Cork deputy's interventions in debate were audible in the street outside Leinster House (though Kelly found Fitzgerald 'a convivial and nice man personally' (Belling the cats, 57, 49)). Fitzgerald also took a somewhat republican stance; he was one of fourteen oireachtas members (four Labour and ten Fianna Fáil) to endorse a campaign by the Irish Sovereignty Movement demanding that the British government should declare an intention to withdraw from Northern Ireland. He served on the opposition front bench as spokesman on labour (1973–7) and on the dáil committee on procedures and privileges and the committee on secondary legislation.
Fitzgerald was a highly effective constituency politician, and reinforced his constituency position by serving on Cork county council (1974–7). In the 1977 general election, which produced a Fianna Fáil landslide, Fitzgerald topped the poll in an extended Cork Mid constituency incorporating parts of Cork city. He became minister for labour in Lynch's last government. Despite his experience in business and as a former trade-union member, his performance at a time of extensive wage disputes owing to rising inflation was undistinguished. One contemporary commentator described him as a 'decent guy' but a 'nonentity' (Ir. Times, 22 December 2007). John Kelly commented sarcastically on his conspicuous absence from the Ferenka debacle (a lengthy demarcation dispute between rival trade unions that led to a factory closure with the loss of 1,400 jobs). Fitzgerald did, however, oversee an expansion in industrial training with many new training centres being established across the country under the aegis of the state body AnCO.
In the 1979 Fianna Fáil leadership contest, Fitzgerald supported Lynch's chosen heir, George Colley (qv), but after the victory of Charles J. Haughey (qv) he rapidly made his peace with the new leader and thereafter supported him against various leadership challenges. Their relationship was obsequious on Fitzgerald's part, contemptuous on Haughey's. Haughey allegedly considered demoting Fitzgerald when forming his first cabinet in December 1979, but in the event added responsibility for the public service to his portfolio. This brought a diminution rather than an increase of Fitzgerald's influence; where Lynch gave ministers considerable autonomy, Haughey centred policy in an expanded taoiseach's office and intervened extensively in key departments. Fitzgerald thus found himself sidelined while the taoiseach concluded a national understanding between government, trade unions and employers, which granted wage increases irrespective of long-term consequences.
Haughey's first government pursued a recklessly expansionary policy motivated by a mixture of 1960s Keynesian attitudes and desire to appease the electorate until Haughey could secure a personal mandate at the next election. Haughey dominated economic policy; his new minister, Michael O'Kennedy, lacked financial expertise and was destined to become Ireland's next European commissioner. On O'Kennedy's departure for Brussels in December 1980, Haughey promoted Fitzgerald to the finance ministry. (In this capacity Fitzgerald also served as president of the European Investment Bank.) He privately doubted his suitability for the appointment, asking financial correspondents for Irish newspapers to 'go easy on me, boys' (Drennan, Standing by the republic). Haughey oversaw the preparation of the 1981 budget, even taking dáil questions on matters normally reserved for the minister for finance. Haughey's press secretary, Frank Dunlop, later recalled that Fitzgerald received almost hourly phone calls from Haughey and lamented plaintively: 'What do I have to do to satisfy that man? How do you put up with him?' (Dunlop, 174).
Fitzgerald's budget speech of 28 January 1981, predicting that 'the worst of the recession has passed and a gradual upturn should soon be underway', was rapidly contradicted by soaring unemployment and a budget deficit 62 per cent larger than forecast. The budget, which included large increases in social welfare payments, was intended as overture for a general election campaign to be launched at the Fianna Fáil ard fheis on 14 February, but the postponement of both the ard fheis and the election following the deaths of forty-eight young people in a fire at the Stardust nightclub in Dublin on 13 February gave time for the budget's shortcomings to become apparent. John Kelly ridiculed Fitzgerald's populist denunciations of 'Thatcherism' and calls for Europe to implement a more expansionary policy, and denounced Fitzgerald's budget speech as the weakest he had ever heard, both in content and delivery. It was later alleged that civil servants in the Department of Finance had protested at Haughey's insistence that highly optimistic calculations (including predicted expenditure cuts without corresponding detailed plans and a notional financial commitment from the private sector) should be incorporated in the budget, and some had considered resignation. The Fine Gael–Labour coalition formed after the June 1981 election was obliged to introduce a draconian emergency budget in July to control public spending, and for many years thereafter Fitzgerald's tenure at Finance was recalled as the absolute nadir of Irish economic mismanagement.
Fitzgerald's retention and promotion in the Haughey cabinet were influenced by electoral considerations. The retirement of Jack Lynch meant that some of his personal Cork city vote would be lost to Fianna Fáil, and this was exacerbated by local resentment at Haughey's perceived betrayal of Lynch. By the 1981 general election, constituency boundaries had again been redrawn, and Fitzgerald chose to contest the new, urban Cork South-Central five-seat constituency rather than Cork North-West (which incorporated rural areas of mid-Cork). Shortly before the election, Fitzgerald optimistically predicted that Fianna Fáil would secure twelve of the twenty seats in the five Cork constituencies; they took seven, with Fitzgerald outpolled in South-Central by Fine Gael's deputy leader, Peter Barry, coming only a few hundred votes ahead of Lynch's former running-mate Pearse Wyse (1928–2009) (a diehard opponent of Haughey), and failing to deliver a third seat. His vote declined further in both 1982 general elections.
When Haughey formed his second government in March 1982, Fitzgerald again was minister for labour and the public service. After this government fell in November 1982, Fitzgerald again became opposition spokesman on labour, calling on the government to assist businesses in the Cork and Kerry region (suffering particularly high unemployment because of the demise of traditional industries).
Fitzgerald was a conventionally pious Catholic, who criticised the education policy of the 1982–7 coalition government for undermining religious influence in schools, and who campaigned against divorce and abortion. (After 1992, however, when anti-abortionists criticised Fianna Fáil's response to the X case and campaigned against further European integration, Fitzgerald staunchly followed the party line.)
In 1984 Fitzgerald contested the European elections in the Munster constituency as part of a strategy of maximising Fianna Fáil's electoral performance by running high-profile candidates without regard to the European view that the dual mandate (the same person simultaneously serving in the national and European parliaments) should be eliminated. (Fianna Fáil announced that successful candidates would have to choose between the two parliaments at the next dáil election, thus allowing two-and-a-half years of double-jobbing.) After securing a European parliament seat, Fitzgerald announced that his political future lay in Europe. Although he offered to reconsider this decision after Wyse defected to the newly formed Progressive Democrats in January 1986, it was decided that a slate of younger candidates offered the best prospect of maintaining Fianna Fáil's position in Cork. Fitzgerald accordingly retired from the dáil at the 1987 general election.
In the European parliament, Fitzgerald advocated tackling unemployment through a more flexible labour market (as in the USA and Japan), and argued that European monetary union would require expansion of the European social funds available to poorer regions such as Ireland. He became vice-president of the parliament's social affairs and employment committee, but his principal concern was in lobbying to secure concessions for his constituents. Unlike some MEPs, he maintained close contact with his constituency, and his clinics and organisational work led to a triumphant re-election in 1989, after which he was elected to the parliament's regional policy committee. In 1993 he was considered as a possible nominee for the Irish position on the European Court of Auditors (eventually given to former Labour minister Barry Desmond.)
In November 1993 Fitzgerald unexpectedly announced his retirement from the European parliament at the next elections in 1994 to spend more time with his family. He subsequently pursued some business interests, and was active in several Cork voluntary associations. In 1994 he was appointed to the board of the state-run Irish National Petroleum Corporation, and was reappointed in 1999 and 2002.
Fitzgerald remained a key member of the Fianna Fáil party organisation as one of two honorary secretaries from 1987 until his death. In 1997 he was a prominent member of the group of party strategists, overseen by party leader Bertie Ahern, who organised the successful general election campaign that resulted in a Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrat coalition. Ahern later described Fitzgerald as a mentor who had advised him during his own tenure in the labour and finance ministries (1987–94). Fitzgerald remained a valued electoral strategist up to the 2007 general election, and shortly before his death was advising Ahern on the prospects for the 2009 local and European elections. Gene Fitzgerald died in the Bon Secours Hospital, Cork city, on 14 December 2007 after a short illness. He and his wife, the former Noreen Lucy, had one son and four daughters.
Fitzgerald was a creation of the era of Seán Lemass (qv), with its combination of economic innovation and (somewhat opportunistic) insistence that this was compatible with cultural continuity; his later career was shaped by the upheavals in the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s, which revealed the hidden contradictions in this approach. Fitzgerald's energy and organisational talents were not fully reflected in his lacklustre ministerial career, the misfortunes of which were partly due to the economic crises of the period. His jovial style of clientelist politics might have fared better in boom times, and bears an interesting resemblance to the political style of Bertie Ahern (whose apparently stellar ministerial record appears in hindsight to owe more to circumstances, and contains a broader streak of mediocrity than was apparent at the time). The comparison to Ahern, however, also casts Fitzgerald as primarily a patronage broker and electoral strategist, lacking the extra edge of reserve, calculation, and determination required for the highest political offices.