Wednesday, May 25, 2011

RIP Garret Fitzgerald

Last Thursday morning as I drove out to Dublin Airport for my brief trip to Portugal I heard the sad news that former Taoiseach Gareth Fitzgerald had passed away. I was saddened more than you might expect on hearing that a 85 year old former head of government was dead. While he may have been elderly he was exceptionally active. I would often See him at the many debates on different issues that I regularly attend in Dublin. And while 85 is a grand old age, he was the type of man, a national treasure as many have been calling him, that you would have expected to have around for a good while longer, perhaps even to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, a rebellion in which both his mother and father fought.

I met Gareth Fitzgerald a couple of times. With the risk of sounding more connected to him than I was let me say that I actually found him adorable. His grandfatherly nature and comical demeanour made him very endearing. He was simply very very likable. And when compared along side Charlie Haughey, his corrupt and devious political nemesis throughout the 1980s he almost seems saintly. During his reign some Republicans tried to portray him as being too pro British. Populists favoured Haughey's charisma over Fitzgerald whle Christy Moore mocked him in song. Well we now know that Haughey's time in office was full of criminal antics where as Fitzgerald's honesty and integrity was utterly uncompromising.

The body of Garret Fitzgerald is carried by members of the Defence Forces after his funeral on Sunday.

Garret Fitzgerald served twice as Taoiseach. He had a small stint at the helm from June 1981 to March 1982 before serving a full term from December 1982 to March 1987. He will be remembered for confronting the Catholic Church and initiating a liberal crusade although in today's world to refer to legalising divorce and contraception as liberal seems a bit strange. His economic legacy is debatable as he was known a a big spender although in terms of education he modernised 3rd level institutions which contributed so much to the highly qualified work force that Ireland has today. However it will always be the Anglo Irish Agreement which he will be most famously remembered for, an agreement which led to peace on this island but one which lazy minded Republicans (most of whom make lousy historians) would claim was a sell out.

As I hinted at already, Republicans constantly portrayed Garret Fitzgerald as not being nationalist enough. But this is not true. He was a nationalist. He just unconditionally opposed IRA violence. He directed the Gardai and the Army to pursue the IRA relentlessly. Nevertheless he did have quite impeccable republican credentials. His Mother and Father both served in the GPO during Easter week. His Father Desmond Fitzgerald was a TD in the first Dail who served as Director of Publicity for the underground Irish Republic from 1919 to 1921. Fitzgerald senior backed the 1921 Anglo Irish Treaty (even though his wife opposed it) and became Minister for Foreign affairs in the controversial Free State government (1922-1932) thus beginning a long lasting family association with the Fine Gael Party.

The Anglo Irish Agreement and Thatchers' betrayal
The reason I make the point about his Republican credentials is that I believe in his own way he was a staunch one. If you ask many Ulster Unionists who they believed the greatest traitor in the history of unionism was, many would say Margaret Thatcher. This is because she signed a document in 1985 negotiated by Fitzgerald which stated that the Republic of Ireland was not just another nation and that Dublin was entitled to a role in deciding the future of Northern Ireland, and indeed in that future itself. This was quite a turn around from the woman who once stated that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchly (Thathcer's constituency).
Garret Fitzgerald and Margaret Thatcher sign the Anglo Irish Agreement.

The Agreement drove the Ulster Unionists wild with anger for the Thatcher sell out to Republicanism and Papism. And the ultimate political opportunist Charlie Haughey likewise rejected the Agreement as a sell out for the Republican cause because it watered down articles two and three of the Irish constitution which laid territorial claim to Northern Ireland. One Objective of the Anglo Irish Agreement was to improve relations between London and Dublin so that both governments could focus on resolving the conflict in the north instead of bickering with each other. Another objective, specifically from an Irish point of view was to keep the foot in the door for a United Ireland. This was done through the British acknowledgement of Dublin's right which would later take the form after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement of the North South ministerial councils which are body's from Dublin and Belfast that meet regularly to discuss island wide issue. If there ever is to be a United Ireland we will be able to say that it could not have happened without Garret Fitzgerald and the Anglo Irish Agreement.

Garrett Fitzgerald's most important legacy will always be the peace process. Unlike Haughey he was not interested in engaging in populist nationalist rhetoric. All he wanted to do was to help end the violence in the north. I was delighted that President Obama paid tribute to him in his speech in Dublin on Monday. Garret Fitzgerald will be missed by all the political anoraks in Dublin like me who were so used to his regular contributions on a range of issues. May he rest in Peace.

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