FitzGerald, Garret (1926–2011), economist, politician and taoiseach, was born in Dublin on 9 February 1926, fourth and youngest son of Desmond FitzGerald (qv), cabinet minister, and his wife Mabel (née McConnell) (qv). FitzGerald recalled that childish expressions of anti-protestant bigotry were checked by his mother’s reminder that she was a protestant (she converted to catholicism in 1943). Throughout his career FitzGerald presented himself as seeking a form of Irishness reconciling the southern catholic and Ulster protestant identities represented by his parents. He noted in his memoirs that for much of his life he remained in close contact with his mother’s relatives, whereas the FitzGeralds had lost touch with any paternal relations in Ireland. FitzGerald’s elder brothers included the architect Desmond FitzGerald (qv).
Early years and education
FitzGerald was educated at St Brigid’s School, Bray, Co. Wicklow and at Belvedere College, Dublin; his educational development was assisted by his parents’ extensive library and visits from their Irish, British and French intellectual friends. In 1935–6 FitzGerald spent a year as a boarder at Colaiste na Rinne (in the Ring Gaeltacht, Co. Waterford); after three subsequent Gaeltacht summer holidays he acquired basic fluency in Irish, although this never extended to high-level conversation. Summer holidays with a French family at Melun in Île-de-France in 1938 and 1939 provided him with a ‘second family’, a love of France which underpinned his lifelong commitment to the European movement, and command of the French language.
Because of the second world war FitzGerald spent an extra year in Belvedere (where he studied Thomistic philosophy) rather than studying on the Continent as his brothers had done – he was too young to go directly to university. He then attended UCD, taking a BA in history and French. During the 1930s the FitzGerald family came under financial strain, compounded by the political eclipse of Desmond FitzGerald and of Cumann na nGaedheal. Garret FitzGerald thus shared with his university contemporary and long-term political rival Charles Haughey (qv) an experience of familial decline linked to the limitations of the outcome of the independence struggle, and a project of redemption linking individual fulfilment with the desire to exceed and justify their parental heritage by completing the unfinished business of national economic development and absorbing Northern Ireland.
Marriage and early career
On 10 October 1947 FitzGerald married Joan O’Farrell (qv), with whom he had fallen in love at university; they had two sons and a daughter, and FitzGerald proved a devoted husband and father. The FitzGeralds’ marriage was famously close and intellectually equal; Joan frequently advised him in person and over the telephone, and FitzGerald makes several passing references in his memoirs to consulting her on major decisions (albeit sometimes after he had made them). FitzGerald saw Joan as more instinctively radical than him. Even after she developed arthritis (which eventually confined her to a wheelchair) from the late 1970s she accompanied him to public events, and after stepping down as taoiseach FitzGerald became her primary carer until her death in 1999. Some commentators saw her as the dominant partner, unduly influencing her husband, but this may reflect cultural preference for less assertive wives.
Although Desmond FitzGerald wished Garret to become a barrister, and he was called to the bar at the King’s Inns, Dublin, in 1947, a bar career was precluded by his desire to marry early even if he had not developed other ambitions. At the age of twelve FitzGerald had announced his intention of working for the national airline Aer Lingus (seen as a symbol of national identity and modernity). His interest in statistics and hobby of memorising airline timetables led him to apply for jobs in several airlines after graduation; on 13 January 1947 he began work as an administrative assistant at Aer Lingus. In 1950 he assumed responsibility for economic planning and transport scheduling within the company. This led to his becoming one of the foremost experts on the (conspicuously under-studied) Irish economy and to a part-time academic position at UCD (after a one-year research position at TCD). He also developed an abiding respect for the public service ethos exemplified by his Aer Lingus colleagues, and remarked in his memoirs that he never had quite the same sympathy with private enterprise.
FitzGerald supplemented his Aer Lingus salary with freelance journalism for a number of international newspapers and occasional work on public commissions. After a brief period of contributing to the Irish Independent, on 4 December 1954 FitzGerald published his first fully-authored article for the Irish Times. He would publish some 2,200 articles in that newspaper (breaking off when he became minister for foreign affairs in 1973 and resuming from 1991 until shortly before his death). His weekly column from 1959 to 1973 was regarded as the most valuable commentary on the contemporary Irish economy. FitzGerald became convinced that Ireland was being economically retarded by reliance on the slow-growing British economy whose cheap food policy limited the profitability of Irish agricultural exports, and that in order to prepare for admission to the more economically dynamic European Community (driven by postwar technocratic planning) Irish industry needed to be mapped and quantified and adopt international managerial techniques guided by a new class of homegrown experts.
In 1958 FitzGerald resigned from Aer Lingus to join the Department of Political Economy in UCD in 1959 (after a year as a Rockefeller junior research assistant at TCD). This was motivated by desire for an eventual political career; despite his admiration for public service administrators such as T. K. Whitaker (1916–2017) FitzGerald believed that only elected politicians could provide the type of leadership necessary for national transformation. In 1961 he established an independent business consultancy, subsequently merged with the Economist Intelligence Unit of which he remained managing director until 1972. He became Irish correspondent of the Economist and the Financial Times. He also joined the Bilderberg Group (Trilateral Commission), an international discussion body recruited from civic and political leaders, and became a founder member of the Irish Economic Research Institute (ERI) in 1960 and of the Institute of Public Administration (IPA).
Between 1959 and 1973 FitzGerald lectured in economics at UCD, though his position was weakened by his limited academic qualifications until he was awarded a Ph.D. in 1969, with his dissertation being published by the IPA as a book, Planning in Ireland. The discipline was defined more amorphously in the Department than was later the case, and FitzGerald’s strengths lay in statistics, economic history and business organisation rather than in pure economics. In 1965 FitzGerald was elected to the UCD governing body, where he joined the minority opposed to the traditional authoritarian style of academic governance and helped to mediate between students and college authorities after the 1969 student protest known as the ‘gentle revolution’ began a gradual transformation of the college’s ethos. At a time when most academic staff remained remote from students, FitzGerald was unusual in his personal interest in the student body; during the 1960s his Thursday morning discussion sessions with students from all disciplines over coffee and biscuits at the Country Shop café on Stephen’s Green were well known. During the early 1960s FitzGerald experienced an intellectual and political rethinking which he attributed to his intellectual exchanges with students and with his teenaged children and their friends; it also reflected the upheavals associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) and the demise of Irish economic and cultural protectionism.
Religious and social vision
FitzGerald’s religious faith was primarily rationalistic rather than based on popular emotional devotions. He was strongly influenced by the form of Christian democracy associated with the French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), a friend of Desmond FitzGerald. In its post-war version, influenced by the experience of interdenominational religious resistance to fascism and Nazism and reacting against the collaboration of authoritarian forms of catholicism with those systems, this maintained that catholics and non-catholics could work together in a democratic political system based on natural law and co-operation for the common good in opposition to the arbitrary totalitarianism of fascism and communism. It further argued that social cohesion should be maintained by corporatist economic planning where expertise would remove conflict from economic policy, and by generous levels of social provision, and that Europe should unite on the basis of shared economic interests and a civilisation rooted in the heritage of Greece, Rome and Jerusalem. In practice, Christian democracy was highly amorphous, initially held together by fear of godless communism but increasingly strained by tensions between supporters of laissez-faire, of corporatist planning and of more radical forms of economic interventionism; while in the aftermath of the second world war catholicism enjoyed cultural and social prestige, many intellectuals from whom that prestige derived were frustrated by what they saw as the retrograde views and influences of senior clerics nationally and in Rome, while socially radical Christian democrats were antagonised by compromises with often sinister vested interests.
The Second Vatican Council and the international socio-economic developments of the early 1960s were expected by liberal Christian democrats to take the project to new heights; instead it produced an intellectual crisis which led to further secularisation of the movement. FitzGerald described himself as evolving by 1964 from clericalism, Cold War political conservatism and anti-communist witch-hunting to a more social-democratic approach, which he saw as validated by the social doctrines of Vatican II and Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. He expressed these views in the Jesuit intellectual quarterly, Studies, calling for Irish cultural philistinism, materialism and a concern with the rights of property verging on amoral familialism to be displaced by a more intellectually open society and a more interventionist and redistributionist state embodying the public good. FitzGerald was concerned that the proceeds of the economic boom associated with Seán Lemass (qv) were distributed unevenly; his proposed solutions included a wealth tax on the property of the richest one percent of the population, a measure which he advocated throughout his career. FitzGerald’s view of property rights in primarily legal and moral terms, with the government representing a common good transcending individual interests, and his dismissive attitude towards the liberal argument that secure property rights were necessary to incentivise innovation and development, reflected the left-wing Christian democrat views of Maritain, and his own urban background with its distance from rural Irish attachment to land ownership.
FitzGerald’s deference to Church authorities was further loosened by the reaction against Humanae vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical unexpectedly reiterating the traditional prohibition of artificial contraception. FitzGerald found the encyclical’s reasoning unpersuasive and decided that his previous disapproval of contraception had reflected aesthetic rather than intellectual considerations. In later life he sometimes described his position as being on the social democratic wing of European Christian democracy (a 1979 memorandum setting out his social vision, which advocates a policy based on the development of the human person as a middle way between laissez-faire and totalitarian socialism, shows Maritain’s influence), and advocated ‘Christian principles, liberal ideas and social democracy’, but increasingly he simply called himself a social democrat. The Humanae vitae controversy strengthened the FitzGeralds’ links with a network of liberal theologians and activists who worked to counteract the encyclical, and developed their own interest in theology. They acquired a useful collection of theological publications, and for the rest of his life FitzGerald recommended theology as an unceasing source of intellectual fascination.
FitzGerald was politically inactive for some years after canvassing for Fine Gael in the 1948 general election, because he felt he had been induced to solicit votes under false pretences by reassuring middle-class South Dublin voters of Fine Gael’s commitment to the British Commonwealth (which the inter-party government left in 1949). FitzGerald voted for Lemass at the 1961 general election but turned down an invitation to join Fianna Fáil made by some party activists (including Charles Haughey). FitzGerald briefly considered joining the Labour Party, but decided that it was too sectional (dominated by trade union interests) and that its opposition to coalition would exclude it from power for some time to come. Instead, he was recruited by Declan Costello (qv) to the project of revitalising Fine Gael through a more social-democratic approach spelled out in the ‘Just society’ document (which also displayed strong liberal-catholic influences). He subsequently supported an abortive proposal to merge Labour and Fine Gael.
FitzGerald decided against standing for the dáil in the 1965 general election, but made a strong impression in RTÉ television coverage and analysis of election results. FitzGerald’s soft-spoken academic air of mild eccentricity combined with an aura of confident expertise was congenial to the intimate new medium, whereas many older politicians were used to the forceful projection required when addressing outdoor meetings and to 1950s deferential interviewing styles.
FitzGerald was persuaded to stand for the seanad as a Fine Gael candidate on the industrial and commercial panel, using his statistical knowledge to shape an energetic campaign (although he only formally became a party member some time after his election). In 1969 he became TD for Dublin South-East and opposition front bench spokesman on education. FitzGerald rapidly established himself as a formidable dáil performer, calling for increased parental involvement and less church involvement in schools and advocating relaxation of ‘compulsory Irish’ policies (which made the language a requirement for public service jobs and decreed that failure in Irish meant overall failure in examinations). FitzGerald also addressed numerous policy issues unrelated to his brief; an Irish Times cartoon depicted a Fine Gael front bench of twenty-one Garret FitzGeralds.
FitzGerald was recognised as one of the foremost experts on the Irish economy and society, and his immediate appointment to the Fine Gael front bench reflected this. His awareness of his own ability had a downside; he would always have excessive confidence in the correctness of his own views and corresponding impatience with disagreement, while some conservative elements within the party saw him as an untrustworthy self-promoter. This perception was reinforced as FitzGerald became a focal point for supporters of the ‘Just society’ wing of the party, who saw him as a potential future leader (especially after the partial withdrawal from politics of Declan Costello). As a senator he worked closely with the new party leader, Liam Cosgrave (1920–2017), but they became more distant as Cosgrave fell under the influence of the fiscally conservative Gerard Sweetman (qv). FitzGerald’s conspicuous belief (shared by vocal admirers) that he was better qualified than Cosgrave to lead Fine Gael contributed to these tensions, and antagonised longer-serving reformists such as Richie Ryan (1929–2019).
FitzGerald was dismayed by the outbreak of the Northern Ireland troubles; he was a longstanding opponent of the official state view that partition should be ended without the consent of the Ulster unionists, and helped to move Fine Gael towards a ‘unity by consent’ policy. FitzGerald was outspokenly critical of the attempts of elements within Fianna Fáil led by Neil Blaney (qv) and Haughey to intervene in Northern Ireland using the nascent Provisional IRA as a proxy, after these were revealed by the dismissal of the relevant ministers by Jack Lynch (qv) in the 1970 arms crisis. After the acquittal of the defendants in the arms trial, FitzGerald took a leading role in the efforts of the public accounts committee to investigate the diversion of public money to republican paramilitaries.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s several academics, littérateurs and public figures (including Conor Cruise O’Brien (qv), Cahal Daly (qv), James Plunkett (qv) and Oliver MacDonagh (qv)) published books reflecting on and reassessing Irish history and society in the light of such recent developments as the economic revival of the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council and its consequences, the 1966 anniversary of the Easter rising, the outbreak of the Northern Ireland troubles and Irish accession to the European Economic Community (EEC). FitzGerald’s contribution to this genre, Towards a new Ireland (1972), reworked a number of articles which he had published since the mid-1960s. FitzGerald addressed the question, raised by commentators including Francis Shaw (qv) and Conor Cruise O’Brien of whether the 1916 rising was morally justified, given the precedent it supplied for the use of physical force against the will of the majority, and the possibility that home rule might have led to Irish independence by consent. FitzGerald argued that if a sovereign Irish state had not come into existence when it did, the growing economic interventionism and welfare provision of the British state would have inhibited progress towards full independence, leading to Ireland entering the European Community as a British region represented at the conference table by a metropolitan government for whom specifically Irish interests were outweighed by other considerations. FitzGerald also maintained the disputed view that while protectionism (for which full sovereignty had been necessary) was outmoded by the late 1950s, it had been crucial in fostering infant industries and creating an industrial workforce necessary for later developments. The book is notable for its highly statistical approach, evading the possibility that the 1916 rising might have been morally questionable even if beneficial, and its dismissive attitude to Ulster unionist self-identification as British. FitzGerald argued that unionists and the British saw each other as foreign in many respects; he claimed to understand unionists’ identity better than they did themselves, holding that they were best understood as Irish protestants concerned for the protection of their interests and ethos. In his memoirs FitzGerald lovingly recounts instances of British people telling him that the unionists were not British but Irish, whereas he waxes indignant when British individuals such as Norman Tebbit regard them as ‘our people’. While FitzGerald always acknowledged that Conor Cruise O’Brien, whose more culturally and psychologically-oriented pessimistic analysis, States of Ireland (1972), contrasts with FitzGerald’s liberal-technocratic optimism, was correct in fearing the consequences of provoking unionist reaction, he thought O’Brien discounted the risk of driving moderate nationalists to support Sinn Féin/IRA.
O’Brien in turn believed FitzGerald was excessively influenced by John Hume (1937–2020), the most effective political figure in the nationalist SDLP, who became one of FitzGerald’s major political contacts in the 1970s and 1980s and shared his emphasis on the European dimension of a possible solution and on the need for direct involvement by the Republic in administering Northern Ireland. FitzGerald consistently opposed the IRA campaign, but attributed the outbreak of the Troubles principally to unionist bigotry and short-sightedness and to British neglect. His memoirs display persistent resentment at British condescension and irresponsibility, particularly with regard to the impact of their policies on Northern Ireland and potentially on the Republic.
In 1971 and 1972 FitzGerald was involved in intrigues against Cosgrave’s leadership, and was identifiable as one of the ‘mongrel foxes’ denounced by Cosgrave at the 1972 Ard Fheis. Although widespread internal party opposition to Cosgrave’s support for the Fianna Fáil Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill in November 1972 partly reflected civil liberties concerns, it was believed that if Cosgrave had been deposed FitzGerald would have been a principal beneficiary (though Tom O’Higgins (qv) might have become leader). FitzGerald later stated that in retrospect he believed Cosgrave had been correct. He was notably effective during the campaign leading up to the February 1973 general election, and played a significant role in the victory of the Fine Gael–Labour coalition by trouncing finance minister George Colley (qv) in a television debate where FitzGerald repeatedly asked how Fianna Fáil intended to pay for its election promises.
FitzGerald recalls the elderly London journalist A. P. Ryan remembering Desmond FitzGerald briefing journalists during the war of independence on the need for Irish sovereignty and asking why FitzGerald now advocated cession of Irish sovereignty to the EEC. FitzGerald replied that Irish EEC entry did not represent cession but pooling of sovereignty, which would enhance Ireland’s well-being by replacing dependence on the sluggish British economy with access to continental economies. It would also assist eventual Irish reunification, by expanding Irish horizons and leading to the replacement of an inward-looking post Gaelic-catholic nationalism with a more inclusive republicanism, by allowing a thriving Republic to match the levels of social provision in the United Kingdom, and by bringing home to unionists that they would be better off as a large minority in a member state with direct access to EEC institutions rather than as a peripheral appendage to a large state.
In 1971 FitzGerald became Fine Gael spokesman on finance. He took a leading role in the campaign for Irish membership of the EEC, touring the country with the Labour Party spokesman Justin Keating (qv), who then opposed membership, to debate the issue. One of FitzGerald’s abiding regrets was that, due to an overestimate of potential opposition, the constitutional amendment required for membership was worded in a manner which later allowed the Supreme Court to decide that referenda were required to ratify all European treaties.
Minister for foreign affairs
Once the 1973 general election result made it clear that a Fine Gael–Labour coalition government would be formed, FitzGerald was widely expected to become minister for finance; he began planning his first budget and visited the Department of Social Welfare to obtain detailed information about its working. To general surprise, on the day the government took office Cosgrave appointed FitzGerald to the foreign affairs ministry while sending Richie Ryan to the Department of Finance. This was seen in some quarters as an attempt to sideline FitzGerald from domestic politics, since foreign affairs had hitherto been relatively marginal (Seán MacBride’s (qv) choice of it in 1948–51 was disastrous to his domestic political base) and FitzGerald was reluctant to fly because Joan had developed a morbid fear of air travel (which she subsequently overcame). Cosgrave was notably inscrutable, and this interpretation of his motives is disputed. Cosgrave himself had been foreign minister in 1954–7, and FitzGerald recalled in his memoirs that Cosgrave and Ryan worked well with him in his new position. In the event, FitzGerald became identified with the inflow of European assistance which followed entry to the EEC, while his party rivals were damaged by the economic downturn following the 1973 oil crisis. FitzGerald delighted in the intricate manoeuvres of committee meetings and worked consistently to promote federal over intergovernmental approaches; he believed that strengthening EEC institutions favoured small states by safeguarding against backdoor deals between larger countries. He also resisted any move to displace French in favour of English as the EEC’s primary language of business, and encouraged closer relations with and increased aid to developing countries, emphasising that experience of colonialism provided common ground between them and Ireland. (Irish Aid was established as an official section of the Department of Foreign Affairs under his tenure in 1974). His conduct of Ireland’s 1975 presidency of the European Council of Ministers was seen as highly successful.
Although FitzGerald’s ability to attend cabinet and government committees was limited by his duties abroad, he formed an alliance with the other two economically qualified ministers, Ryan and Keating, which pushed the government towards more social-democratic economic policies than it might otherwise have adopted (to the discomfort of some instinctively laissez-faire Fine Gael ministers) while European funds enabled the expansion of state welfare provision. FitzGerald and Ryan joined forces to implement the wealth tax and property taxes favoured by FitzGerald as part of the government’s response to economic crisis. Although Ryan was seen at the time as equally associated with the wealth tax, FitzGerald was the prime mover, and when interviewed in old age by journalist David McCullagh, Ryan angrily claimed that FitzGerald had evaded the full extent of responsibility for what Ryan characterised as FitzGerald’s interference in his ministerial responsibility (private information). This proved a major political liability and contributed to Fianna Fáil’s landslide victory at the 1977 general election, after which the tax was repealed. FitzGerald always complained that opposition to the wealth tax was irrational and fomented by vested interests, since it would only have affected a small minority, the richest in the population ignoring the perception that it might have been extended by subsequent governments.
Meanwhile, FitzGerald kept up a steady stream of leaks to sympathetic journalists. His cabinet colleague Conor Cruise O’Brien remarked in retrospect that FitzGerald seemed genuinely unaware of the contrast between his genial persona and his darker, more ambitious side. FitzGerald expressed disquiet about well-founded rumours that elements within the Garda Síochána were beating up suspected subversives to extort forced confessions (although critics retrospectively criticised his failure to investigate this more closely). In 1976 he sided with the Labour ministers in attempting (unsuccessfully) to secure the appointment of Justin Keating, his closest cabinet ally, rather than the conservative catholic minister for education Dick Burke (1932–2016), as European Commissioner.
FitzGerald was one of the Irish government negotiators for the Sunningdale Agreement (December 1973). Conor Cruise O’Brien complained that FitzGerald was unduly influenced by Hume in insisting on a Council of Ireland with extensive powers, whose potential as a long-term vehicle for Irish unification helped to antagonise unionist opinion and contributed to the downfall of the cross-community Executive established under Sunningdale, led by Brian Faulkner (qv). In hindsight, FitzGerald agreed that he had been unduly dismissive of potential unionist opposition, though he maintained that the Executive could have survived if the newly installed British Labour government had intervened quickly and vigorously against loyalist intimidation during the May 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike.
FitzGerald tried unsuccessfully as foreign minister to persuade Pope Paul VI to relax restrictions on religiously mixed marriages in Ireland as a response to the sectarian conflict there, and to agree for the same reason to the removal of laws in the Republic enshrining a catholic ethos, particularly on marriage and sexuality. (FitzGerald presented these as exceptions reflecting local circumstances, rather than disagreement on general principles). This became an area of disagreement with Cosgrave, who took advantage of a free vote to vote against a 1974 government-backed proposal to liberalise restrictions on contraception; it was defeated, to FitzGerald’s dismay. Cosgrave, however, agreed with FitzGerald in seeing the tendency of some church figures, including the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Gaetano Alibrandi (qv) to equate sympathy for extreme republicanism with catholicism as endangering state institutions, and supported FitzGerald’s strong representations to the Vatican on the subject. FitzGerald’s later career was marked by similar suspicions directed towards certain clerics (notably Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv)).
Fine Gael leader
Cosgrave speedily resigned after Fine Gael’s electoral defeat in the June 1977 general election, making no attempt to shape the succession (for which FitzGerald’s supporters were already campaigning, though he later maintained he refrained from canvassing until Cosgrave formally stepped down). Ryan and some other possible contenders quickly withdrew. Peter Barry (1928–2016) initially became a candidate, privately expressing the view that FitzGerald was better suited to leading the party in opposition than in government (FitzGerald, 2010, 277). It soon became clear, however, that FitzGerald had an insurmountable lead, and Barry’s decision not to press matters to a formal vote was also influenced by his concern that some of his supporters appeared more anti-FitzGerald than pro-Barry. Barry and FitzGerald remained on amicable terms throughout the proceedings, and Barry was a mainstay of FitzGerald’s subsequent governments.
FitzGerald was elected unanimously as leader on 1 July 1977. His first concern was to reorganise and professionalise the party organisation. Constituency organisations were made less dependent on local TDs (who often discouraged potential rivals, preferred to rely on small groups of established supporters, and concentrated on securing their own seats); new candidates were recruited including a number of high-profile women activists such as Nuala Fennell (qv), Gemma Hussey (b. 1938), and Monica Barnes (1936–2018), and a youth wing (Young Fine Gael) was established. Many of these new activists and candidates had been active in social reform movements in the 1970s and saw FitzGerald as embodying their hopes for a wider liberalisation of the Irish state and society.
The 1979 local elections produced a crop of new councillors, some of whom went on to become TDs. This process was fortuitously assisted when the new commission established to revise constituencies increased the number of TDs from 144 to 166, making it possible to accommodate new TDs without necessarily displacing older members. Some TDs were annoyed by FitzGerald’s preference for a group of policy advisers and electioneering consultants (popularly known as ‘the national handlers’), his lack of interest in backbenchers and the sidelining of some of Cosgrave’s former ministers.
FitzGerald’s career as party leader and taoiseach was defined to a considerable extent by opposition to Charles Haughey who became taoiseach on 11 December 1979 after defeating George Colley in the Fianna Fáil leadership election. During the debate on Haughey’s election as taoiseach FitzGerald claimed that Haughey’s dáil majority was questionable since many Fianna Fáil TDs were voting for him against their better judgement, suggested that unlike previous taoisigh Haughey was widely suspected of self-seeking motives in pursuing office, and described him as having a ‘flawed pedigree’. In later life FitzGerald explained that he was referring to Haughey’s rumoured corruption and saw the reports of official inquiries into Haughey’s finances in the 1990s and 2000s as vindicating him. At the time, however, FitzGerald’s remark was widely seen as a slur on Haughey’s family background (Haughey’s mother was present during the debate) and even sympathisers felt FitzGerald had expressed himself maladroitly.
Opponents saw the speech as confirming their perception that FitzGerald saw himself, and was promoted by South Dublin middle-class liberals and a predominantly sympathetic media, as a self-righteous paragon beyond criticism, irrespective of his actual performance. This view was encapsulated by the nickname ‘Garret the good’, given ironically by the Haughey-admiring commentator John Healy (qv) and adopted as a badge of pride by some FitzGerald supporters. The image of an absent-minded professor was reinforced by such incidents as his appearance at public meetings wearing odd socks, or even odd shoes (he had dressed without turning the light on so as not to wake Joan) and his asking at a meeting in Cork what red and white ribbons represented (the Cork GAA colours). FitzGerald privately admitted that he was ill at ease with the populist aspects of Irish politics, preferring intelligent conversation to the loud music characteristic of late-night party social events, and finding relief from the razzmatazz of campaigning in calculating the rate of decline of the Irish language during the nineteenth century. (This research was subsequently published in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy).
This image of cluelessness was in some ways deceptive: it reflected FitzGerald’s desire to concentrate on what he saw as essentials and consequent disregard for trivialities. Readers of his first memoir will be struck by the numerous instances where he describes with relish how he manipulated European or Anglo-Irish negotiations (e.g. by timing concessions to opponents so that to gain them they had to concede a wider principle, or timing important votes to catch them unawares). He believed that cabinet ministers should concentrate on their managerial role, and that the Irish political system forced undue attention on constituency matters. He was openly dismissive of the view that cabinet formation should be influenced by the aim of representing the different regions at the cabinet table, and this reinforced a perception among opponents that his approach was unduly Dublin-centred. In office he tried to develop a Continental-style system whereby ministers had their own professional staff or cabinet; in later life he advocated the adoption of the German electoral system, which by combining a party list with constituency representation could insulate ministers from localism.
At the June 1981 general election Fine Gael gained sixty-five seats (compared with forty-three in 1977) and formed a minority coalition government with Labour (fifteen seats). FitzGerald displayed a somewhat presidential attitude to leadership, passing over Cosgrave’s former ministers Richie Ryan, Dick Burke and Tom O’Donnell (1926–2020), whom he had recalled to the front bench after a by-election setback in November 1980, while appointing James Dooge (qv) – nominated to the seanad for the purpose – as foreign minister. Dooge proved a competent minister, though the brevity of his term makes assessment of his performance difficult: unnamed officials told the commentator Vincent Browne that Dooge had been ‘an inspired choice’ and the best minister they had ever worked with (Browne, 1981, 185). Dooge declined appointment to FitzGerald’s second cabinet but participated effectively in European negotiations. Particular ill-feeling was caused by the passing over of Dick Burke, who had resigned an academic position at FitzGerald’s request to return to Irish politics. Ryan subsequently made a career in Europe, while O’Donnell became one of FitzGerald’s strongest backbench critics. Junior ministries were distributed without consulting the departmental preferences of the recipients, and this bred resentment. FitzGerald stated that cabinet appointees must resign from any organisations whose membership was not public knowledge (this was seen as directed at the Knights of Columbanus, a semi-secret catholic organisation; some critics asked if it applied to FitzGerald’s membership of the Trilateral Commission, a bugbear of conspiracy theorists).
In an interview on RTÉ Radio FitzGerald described aspects of the 1937 Constitution as sectarian because inspired by catholic teaching, and stated that he intended to ‘crusade’ to reshape it in accordance with the republicanism of Wolfe Tone (qv) and Thomas Davis (qv). This project became known as the ‘constitutional crusade’. This crystallised a political polarisation which had been developing since the late 1960s between an increasingly professionalised and bureaucratised Dublin-centred middle class and upper working-class increasingly open to international cultural influences and allied with secularising artistic and youth countercultures, and a variety of populist critics, including defenders of catholic social morality based on the married family, economic protestors (whose appeal was intensified by the fact that the economic crisis of the 1980s, coinciding with the expiry of transitional exemptions from full-scale competition consequent on Irish EU membership, saw the collapse of many traditional Irish firms), republicans of various shades and localists who complained that Dublin’s needs took priority over regional interests.
FitzGerald’s government immediately faced major crises in the economy and in Northern Ireland. His election had been assisted by the election of two abstentionist H-block candidates, benefitting from a national wave of sympathy for the 1981 H-block hunger strikers, in seats which might otherwise have gone to Fianna Fáil. When one of these TDs, Kieran Doherty (qv) died on hunger strike, FitzGerald shored up his government by voting down the writ for a by-election which Fianna Fáil would almost certainly have won. A march in July 1981 on the British Embassy in Ballsbridge by H-block demonstrators, which culminated in rioting when Gardaí blocked the way to the embassy, and increasing political involvement by Sinn Féin, led FitzGerald to fear that the British government, by combining intransigence with maladroit attempts at clandestine negotiation, might precipitate the displacement of the SDLP as principal nationalist party in Northern Ireland and further destabilise the Republic.
As a result of the fiscal mismanagement of the Lynch and Haughey governments, an interim supplementary budget was required soon after the election; plans to reduce taxes were abandoned and the coalition faced the need for widespread cutbacks. This involved problems both for the Labour Party and the unaffiliated left-wing TDs on whom the government depended. On 27 January 1982 the government fell when a further budget was defeated by one vote, after a debate which saw FitzGerald pleading unsuccessfully with the Limerick TD Jim Kemmy (qv) on the floor of the dáil. Having refused to make concessions to the Independents on such unpopular provisions as the imposition of VAT on children’s clothes and footwear (FitzGerald covered himself with ridicule by defending this on the grounds that small women might wear children’s sizes, which he later claimed was a joke) the government began its election campaign by announcing that it was not committed to the budget provisions whose modification might have prevented the election. FitzGerald, however, fought back with an effective campaign arguing that the government had shown its integrity by making the painful decisions necessary to rescue the economy, and questioning whether Haughey and Fianna Fáil could be trusted with the national finances. Fianna Fáil narrowly failed to win an overall majority, and Haughey’s return to power through a constituency deal with the Dublin independent TD Tony Gregory (qv) reinforced the perception that he was an irresponsible populist. (FitzGerald had also negotiated with Gregory but offered less than Haughey).
Throughout 1982 the Fianna Fáil government was rocked by a series of leadership challenges, policy disputes (including arguments over Anglo-Irish relations) and scandals. Haughey’s attempt to strengthen his dáil position by appointing the discontented Dick Burke as European Commissioner backfired when Fine Gael won the subsequent by-election. (FitzGerald’s handling of the affair was awkward; he initially agreed to Burke’s appointment and backtracked because of party opposition, whereupon Burke accepted the post anyway). The death of one Fianna Fáil deputy and absence through illness of another, and the alienation of the Workers’ Party whose deputies initially supported the government, allowed the opposition to bring down the government. At the subsequent November 1982 general election Fianna Fáil was reduced to seventy-five seats; Fine Gael secured seventy and Labour under Dick Spring (b. 1950) sixteen, with the highest Fine Gael vote ever recorded (39.2 per cent). Labour reversed a recent conference decision not to enter coalition, and a second FitzGerald government was formed, but the need to placate Labour contributed to its limitations. In December 1983 the Labour minister for trade, commerce and tourism, Frank Cluskey (qv), resigned over the government’s decision not to nationalise the failing Dublin Gas Company, which had to be nationalised some time later; this reflected the continuing potential for interparty strain).
FitzGerald’s governments took a number of significant decisions including the liquidation of the semi-state company Irish Shipping – which was controversial because its employees only received minimum redundancy payments – the closure of Carysfort College of Education in response to an oversupply of teachers, the authorisation of the independent airline Ryanair despite opposition from the hitherto quasi-monopolistic Aer Lingus, the replacement of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs by the semi-state bodies An Post and Telecom Éireann. He is generally, however, regarded as an ineffective taoiseach, overburdened by his attempts to micromanage individual departments and an insatiable appetite for the details of governance which rendered him unable to prioritise. FitzGerald’s cabinet meetings rambled on indecisively for hours, resembling academic seminars rather than business meetings. The government was soon blamed for persistently high levels of unemployment and for the revival in the 1980s of large-scale emigration (widely thought to have ended in the 1960s) while Fianna Fáil cynically opposed any cutbacks.
While FitzGerald later claimed that by reducing the deficit from the unsustainable levels reached under Haughey’s first government, he had contributed to the economic recovery which began in the late 1980s, and his government saw the first significant health cutbacks since the foundation of the state, he was reluctant to make cutbacks on the scale necessary to stabilise the economy. This reflected both a desire to keep his government together (reflecting the trauma of his first government’s demise) and FitzGerald’s personal concern for the underprivileged. Some Fine Gael cabinet colleagues complained that when cutbacks were proposed he sided with the Labour party against his party colleagues so often that he might be regarded as a sixth Labour minister.
Perhaps FitzGerald’s largest contribution to the subsequent Irish economic recovery came on the European level, with his significant role in insisting that the renewal of the European integration process under Commission president Jacques Delors, embodied in the 1987 Single European Act and paving the way for subsequent integration measures, must be accompanied by increased development funds to promote economic cohesion by developing the economies of the poorer member states. FitzGerald also negotiated favourable quotas for Irish agricultural produce despite pressure for European subsidy reductions.
In 1985 the Insurance Corporation of Ireland, a subsidiary of Allied Irish Banks (AIB), collapsed on a scale which endangered AIB’s banking business. The government bailed out the business in order to safeguard policyholders, at a total cost to the taxpayer of £400 million (though FitzGerald claimed this was repaid over time by AIB). After the post-2008 Irish banking crash some commentators argued that the 1985 bailout encouraged Irish banks to disregard risks in the belief that the government would always bail them out; however, FitzGerald could not have foreseen this and his government was motivated by legitimate fear of massive disruption to the Irish financial system. FitzGerald was severely criticised in retrospect, however, for not requiring some recompense from AIB (such as a significant state shareholding, though at the time state ownership of banks was seen as an impractical left-wing nostrum); the bank continued to pay dividends at the same level.
Constitutional crusade and Northern Ireland
FitzGerald’s problems were not exclusively economic. In 1981 a number of pressure groups opposed to abortion began a campaign to amend the constitution to preclude the possibility that abortion might be legalised by a Supreme Court decision (as happened in the US in 1973) and approached the major party leaders to seek support. FitzGerald was the first party leader to endorse this campaign, expressing ‘my abhorrence of abortion and opposition to its legalisation’ and Haughey followed suit. The 1982 Haughey government produced a wording which explicitly conferred a right to life on the unborn, and FitzGerald endorsed this despite discontent among some liberal Fine Gael TDs and outright opposition from the majority of the Labour Party. After the formation of the second FitzGerald administration, FitzGerald was advised by his attorney general, Peter Sutherland (1946–2019), that the wording as it stood could endanger women’s lives by calling into question certain medical procedures, and might inadvertently legalise abortion. The government announced that it would replace the wording with one which left decisions on abortion to the legislature rather than the courts.
Although subsequent developments (including the 1992 ‘X case’ in which the Supreme Court ruled that the amendment permitted abortion under certain circumstances) suggest concerns about the wording were well-founded, most supporters of the Amendment believed that the unborn as a distinct human being should have its right to life positively acknowledged and suspected FitzGerald of opportunistic post-election betrayal. A number of Fine Gael and Labour TDs, led by Oliver J. Flanagan (qv) and Alice Glenn (qv), voted with Fianna Fáil to defeat the new wording and reinstate the original proposal; although FitzGerald and most of his cabinet then advocated a No vote, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by a two-to-one vote in September 1983, with outspoken support from the catholic bishops and clergy. Opposition to the amendment was strongest in middle-class suburbs of North and South Dublin and in the newer working-class areas rapidly developing to the west of the city. (It was repealed by a similar margin in a 2018 referendum). FitzGerald lamented that the wording was sectarian in that it reflected a specifically catholic view on abortion (i.e. allowing only the most limited exceptions) and that the outcome of the referendum would strengthen unionist perceptions of the Republic as a catholic state.
In 1985 FitzGerald’s ‘liberal agenda’ achieved a success when health and social welfare minister Barry Desmond (b. 1935) carried a Family Planning Bill allowing wider availability of contraception despite a revolt by three Fine Gael and two Labour TDs; the expulsion from Fianna Fáil of Desmond O’Malley (1939–2021) (already deprived of the party whip) after he refused to join the party in opposing the Bill was the first sign of what became a new socially and economically liberal party, the Progressive Democrats. FitzGerald tried unsuccessfully to recruit O’Malley to Fine Gael, and the new party took definitive form in response to Fianna Fáil opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement (see below). Although all but one of the new party’s initial TDs were defectors from Fianna Fáil, it appealed significantly to middle-class Fine Gael voters annoyed by FitzGerald’s inability to advance the liberal social agenda and his timidity in addressing the fiscal-economic crisis.
FitzGerald’s government also carried out a number of minor social reforms, such as the abolition of the status of illegitimacy for children born outside marriage. The fact that this took much longer to implement than FitzGerald had expected (because of the amount of legislation which required amendment) illustrates his tendency to underestimate the difficulties of implementing change.
In April 1981 British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and FitzGerald had agreed on the formation of a steering committee on Anglo-Irish relations, chaired jointly by Dermot Nally (qv), secretary to the Department of the Taoiseach, and Sir Robert Armstrong (1927–2020), British cabinet secretary. On forming his second government, FitzGerald wished to develop a new initiative on Northern Ireland to counteract the rise of Provisional Sinn Féin (it polled 7.1 per cent in a by-election in Dublin Central in November 1983). He worked with Hume in persuading the SDLP to join the New Ireland Forum, a body aimed at establishing a consensus among constitutional nationalists as the basis for a new constitutional initiative; the SDLP’s adherence forced Fianna Fáil to join. Non-nationalist parties with elected representatives were invited; although none took up the invitation, some individual unionists and Alliance Party supporters made submissions. Other witnesses heard in public session included representatives of the Catholic Bishop’s’ Conference, who reiterated previous statements that they did not want a confessional state but reserved the right to speak out on matters concerning the common good (a distinction of which FitzGerald was sceptical). The Forum met in Dublin Castle during May 1983 to February 1984.
Its report in May 1984 argued that a united Ireland was socially and economically desirable and offered three long-term models – a federal state, a confederation and a unitary state. FitzGerald would have preferred to exclude the latter model (somewhat naively, since it enjoyed widespread support, with many northern nationalists fearing a devolved Northern government might acquiesce in the continuance of anti-catholic discrimination) but it was included to conciliate Fianna Fáil and the ‘green’ wing of the SDLP led by Seamus Mallon (1936–2020). Haughey promptly highlighted the unitary option to the exclusion of the other two, while at a televised press conference after an Anglo-Irish summit in November 1984 Margaret Thatcher dismissed the three options, saying that each in turn was ‘out’. FitzGerald, at a separate televised press conference, was asked about her response before he was fully informed of its nature; the ‘out, out, out’ incident, as it became known, was seen in retrospect as the nadir of Anglo-Irish relations during FitzGerald’s period in office.
In fact, the incident worked to FitzGerald’s advantage since Thatcher felt she had humiliated him and wished to shore up his government. This assisted FitzGerald, working with Hume and with European and American political and diplomatic contacts, in persuading Thatcher to agree to the eighteen months of high-level civil service talks between deputations headed by Armstrong and Nally which produced the November 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. The Agreement gave the Irish Republic a right to be consulted on the governance of Northern Ireland through regular ministerial conferences and the establishment of a secretariat of Irish and British civil servants based in Maryfield in the Belfast suburb of Holywood.
The Agreement was seen as a significant success for the SDLP; its electoral position, which may already have stabilised, noticeably improved. Haughey’s opposition to the Agreement as copper-fastening partition (he sent Brian Lenihan (qv) to the United States to lobby against it) was out of touch with public opinion in the Republic and proved decisive in the formation of the Progressive Democrats. The unionist parties, lulled into a false sense of security by the belief that Thatcher would never make major concessions, were taken aback. Their opposition to the Agreement in the House of Commons was only supported by a small number of right-wing Conservatives (and some far-left, pro-republican Labour MPs), partly because of the skill with which Irish diplomats had cultivated parliamentary opinion in previous years. The Agreement provoked massive demonstrations supported by a much wider section of the Northern Ireland protestant population than had been anticipated, but since the Agreement did not require unionist co-operation, their opposition could not derail it, and the majority of unionists were not prepared to support armed resistance.
The Agreement was nevertheless followed by an upsurge in loyalist paramilitary killings – assisted both by low-level security force collusion and by the release of many loyalist and republican detainees following the collapse of the practice of using dubious ‘supergrass’ informers to give evidence in court against large numbers of suspected paramilitaries. FitzGerald regarded the demise of the ‘supergrass’ system as one of the most conspicuous immediate benefits of the Agreement, although it was precipitated by judicial decisions.
The scale of unionist opposition, combined with the failure of the Agreement to produce security co-operation on the scale anticipated by Thatcher, led to a certain degree of British backpedalling, but the structures of the Agreement remained in place. Thatcher later claimed that her principal motive in signing the Agreement had been to improve security, and she had been unaware of its full implications in recognising the principle that Northern Ireland was not a purely internal matter for Great Britain and that the Irish government was entitled to be consulted on its governance. Her official biographer, Charles Moore, commented that if she did not recognise this it was because she did not want to know.
In hindsight the Agreement is seen as the major success of FitzGerald’s term as taoiseach, paving the way for the subsequent development of the peace process by convincing a critical number of unionists that passivity or resistance a l’outrance were not viable policies, and that if unionists did not join in negotiations they would be bypassed and imposed upon, while giving the nationalist population a stronger sense that it was possible to make political advances.
Decline and fall
In February 1986 FitzGerald tried to reshuffle his ministers, but several (notably Barry Desmond) were reluctant to move. A proposal to move the only woman minister, Gemma Hussey, from Education to a new Department of European Affairs, would have required a full-scale division of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and Hussey had to be accommodated with the Department of Social Welfare while Desmond retained Health.
FitzGerald decided to prepare the ground for an amendment to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution (laying claim to Northern Ireland) by a referendum to remove the constitutional prohibition on divorce. Although opinion polls suggested such a referendum would be carried, FitzGerald announced it on the spur of the moment without realising that the implementation of divorce would require extensive legislation on practical matters; the prominent pro-divorce backbencher and family law expert Alan Shatter later described FitzGerald’s approach as grossly incompetent (Hannon, 2004, 192–5). This allowed anti-divorce pressure groups to raise questions about property division, the rights of the first family and related issues. When the referendum was held on 26 June 1986 the proposal was defeated by two to one. The divorce ban was removed in 1995 after successive governments had enacted the necessary supplementary legislation.
The coalition government fell in January 1987, having lost its majority through the defections of individual Fine Gael and Labour TDs, when Labour ministers refused to support proposed budgetary cuts which the dáil was unlikely to ratify. The subsequent general election was dominated by populist Fianna Fáil campaigning (such as the slogan ‘Health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped’) and by the emergence of the Progressive Democrats. The former political journalist Stephen O’Byrnes, by then press officer for the PDs, published Fine Gael: hiding behind a face, a study of Fine Gael under FitzGerald’s leadership whose cover depicted a nervous taoiseach haunted by ghostly backbenchers from the party’s right and left.
FitzGerald resigned as Fine Gael leader shortly after the election in March 1987 of a minority Fianna Fáil government led by Haughey, having stated in the dáil that Fine Gael would support government measures necessary for economic recovery, thus prefiguring the ‘Tallaght strategy’ of his successor as leader, Alan Dukes. Although initially intending to retire at the 1989 general election, he was persuaded to remain on by the prospect of securing an extra Fine Gael seat; he achieved this, though nearly losing his own seat in the process. (One notable difference between Haughey and FitzGerald was vote management; FitzGerald, the statistician, was always willing to keep down his first preference vote to improve a running-mate’s prospects, whereas Haughey generally maximised his own first preferences even when this decreased Fianna Fáil’s chances of securing an extra seat).
In 1990 FitzGerald contributed significantly to the election of Mary Robinson to the presidency by publicising on a television programme the existence of a taped interview with a UCD student in which the Fianna Fáil candidate Brian Lenihan, who had denied that he had tried to persuade President Hillery (qv) not to dissolve the dáil after the fall of FitzGerald’s first government, admitted having done so. In 1991 FitzGerald published a lengthy self-justifying memoir, All in a life. It was edited by Louis McRedmond (qv) who reduced it from 1000 to 647 pages. He was the first taoiseach to publish a memoir (though Éamon de Valera’s (qv) official biography by T. P. O’Neill (qv) and others may be seen as a surrogate memoir). The full text of the memoir, together with FitzGerald’s voluminous papers, was deposited in the UCD archives. A subsequent memoir, much of it drawn from the earlier book, was entitled Just Garret (2010) to indicate that it was its subject’s unassisted work.
FitzGerald left the dáil at the 1992 election, supporting himself by journalism and consultancy work. He became a director of Guinness Peat Aviation in advance of its proposed 1992 flotation and borrowed £180,000 to buy a qualifying shareholding, confidently declaring that the shares were only going to go one way. After the failure of the flotation, the shares fell to £10,000 and FitzGerald was obliged to sell his share in the family residence to his son Mark and to increase his journalistic output considerably. A significant residual debt was written off by AIB. After the disclosure in 1997 that Haughey had had substantial debts written off by AIB under questionable circumstances, FitzGerald’s dealings with the bank were also called into question. In 2006 the Moriarty Tribunal reported that the two cases were not comparable since FitzGerald, unlike Haughey, had been required to make significant asset disposals by the bank.
FitzGerald campaigned actively for the ratification of further European treaties in successive referenda, and served as president of the Irish Institute for European and International Affairs. He published two essay collections, Reflections on the Irish state: Ireland since independence (2002) and Ireland in the world: further reflections (2005). He frequently addressed discussion groups and university students. He was fourth Chancellor of the National University of Ireland (1997–2009).
As a commentator, FitzGerald was extremely critical of the Progressive Democrats, whom he saw as embodying American-style free market liberalism which he believed should have no permanent place in Irish politics. He persistently criticised the post-1997 Fianna Fáil-dominated governments for fiscal recklessness and allowing productivity to deteriorate. After the demise of the PDs following the 2007 general election, he was critical of what he saw as the adoption of their policies by Fine Gael. Some younger Fine Gael TDs such as the future taoiseach Leo Varadkar (b. 1979) responded by blaming FitzGerald for having done long-term damage to the party’s reputation for economic competence. During one dáil debate Varadkar declared that since taoiseach Brian Cowen (b. 1960) had wrecked the economy and trebled the national debt, ‘You’re not a Seán Lemass … You’re a Garret FitzGerald’ (Dáil debates, 23 March 2011: Debate on Nomination of members of the Government: Motion (resumed). See also Ir. Times, 24 March 2011). FitzGerald further antagonised many opposition TDs by supporting the Cowen government’s plan to bail out the banks by consigning their problematic debts to a new National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) and during the 2011 general election campaign he made it clear that he hoped for a new Fine Gael–Labour coalition rather than a single-party Fine Gael government (especially if this was a minority government supported by volatile Independents). He also engaged in a public quarrel with the economist David McWilliams (who had suggested that the government should default on its payments to bank bondholders) by complaining that reckless statements by celebrity economists could have a deleterious effect on Ireland’s international creditworthiness.
Garret FitzGerald died of pneumonia on 19 May 2011 in the Mater Hospital, Dublin after a short illness. His research on primary education in early nineteenth-century Ireland was published posthumously in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy.
FitzGerald aroused great hopes among his most enthusiastic supporters, who saw him as the standard-bearer for social and fiscal responsibility and for a wider liberalisation. In the immediate aftermath of his departure as taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, he was widely seen as having disappointed them by his disastrous economic record and the defeat of many of his socially liberalising measures. He lived to see himself hailed as a prophet of the secularisation and social modernisation which unfolded in the decades following his political retirement, and regarded as having laid the groundwork for reconciliation between Ireland and Britain and between the rival communities in Northern Ireland. Even the former Fianna Fáil junior minister Conor Lenihan (b. 1963) (in a 2015 study of Haughey, Prince of power) suggested that FitzGerald had produced a consistent vision of an Irish path to modernity while Haughey had failed to do so, and that consequently contemporary Ireland owed more to FitzGerald than to Haughey. His obituarists made much of the coincidence of his last illness and the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic, seen as the capstone of the reconciliation process.
Critics responded that FitzGerald had favoured the political exclusion of the extremes (particularly Sinn Féin/IRA) in a settlement based on centrist groups (the Sunningdale model) rather than the inclusive process which actually developed (and which led to the electoral and governmental dominance of the most extreme mainstream parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin). The belief in a Northern Ireland settlement securely underpinned by the European dimension was further called into question by the 2016 British referendum vote to leave the EU and by the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive between 2017 and 2020.
Whereas consensus has largely been reached on the position in Irish history of his rival Haughey, Garret FitzGerald remains somewhat difficult to pin down, in part because of the sheer bulk of apologetic material (much of it written by FitzGerald himself) and partly because his identification with ultimately triumphant trends in Irish social and political life.
Certain observations may be made. First, the description of FitzGerald as a ‘west Brit’ or quasi-unionist offered by many of his opponents was entirely unjustified. As with the founding generation of Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil leaders, he saw the creation of a separate Irish state with functioning institutions as an epochal achievement which must not be endangered, and saw himself as continuing and fulfilling that project. His belief that Ireland must look beyond Britain to wider horizons in Europe was not simply the product of his economic analysis of the differential growth-rates of British and Continental economies, but continued a long-lasting separatist tradition of seeking alignment with a Continental hegemon. FitzGerald clearly regarded all forms of unionism as fundamentally misguided; while he accepted that Ulster unionists could only be incorporated in the Irish state with their own consent, he saw such incorporation as the only definitive solution. Secondly, FitzGerald was to a considerable extent a belated creature of the post-second world war European social democrat–Christian democrat consensus, uneasy with the turbo-capitalism of the Thatcherite and ‘Celtic Tiger’ era. He appears to have adjusted to the increasing social liberalism of late twentieth and early twenty-first century Ireland, but with a certain amount of self-deception about the extent to which this involved a fundamental philosophical break with the catholicism to which he continued to subscribe.
FitzGerald’s managerialist confidence in his own expert correctness may have reflected his background in statistics (a field which offers apparent precision) and accounted for some of his own political flaws, including wishful thinking (when he assumed that what seemed obvious to him must be equally obvious to everyone, leading him to overestimate support), and a tendency to assume that opponents must necessarily be dishonest or irrational (as indeed was often the case). While he was capable of admitting mistakes (such as his disregard of Cruise O’Brien’s warnings over Sunningdale), his tendency to engage in extensive rationalisation to ‘prove’ that he had always been right is displayed extensively in his memoirs, which also display an undercurrent of anger and spite towards certain opponents. He was more politically successful and more balanced than Cruise O’Brien, but for all their Gothic and paranoid streaks Cruise O’Brien’s writings seem to touch on aspects of Irishness which make FitzGerald’s more level observations appear Panglossian.
Maybe it is fairest to say that FitzGerald steered Ireland on socio-economic paths which it would have followed anyway (though perhaps more slowly); that his claim to greatness lies in the possession and articulation of an overall vision and in his pioneering economic analysis, but he fell short in execution.