Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Garret Fitzgerald, 1926-2011

I'm sorry to see that Garret Fitzgerald has died, at the age of 85. He was Taoiseach (=Prime Minster of Ireland) twice in the 1980s, and also Irish foreign minister in the mid-1970s. He played as important a role on Northern Ireland as any Southern politician - he was one of the Irish government's negotiators at Sunningdale in 1973, set up the New Ireland Forum to try and direct Irish nationalism more productively in the early 1980s, and most importantly he persuaded Margaret Thatcher to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, which (rather bitterly) transformed Unionists' understanding of what might be possible for the future of Northern Ireland. He tried, and largely failed, to liberalise Irish politics, spectacularly screwing up referendums on abortion in 1983 and divorce in 1986, and just about managing a reform of the contraception laws; but all of this paved the way for the secularisation of Irish society which hit only a few years later. Less appreciated now is his crucial role as foreign minister immediately after Ireland had joined the European Economic Community, establishing the state as an independent international actor in a context where it had basically joined on Britain's coat-tails.

I met him several times, most recently at a seminar I gave in DCU in 2006 (I note that the official photo of the event shows Garret flanked by the host and the chair of the meeting, with no visible trace of either of the actual speakers) where he asked some typically sharp questions about the situation in Georgia (where his grand-daughter, who now works around the corner from me in Brussels, was about to go on a mission). I also remember meeting him at an Anglo-Irish political seminar about ten years before, and admitting to him my past research into medieval history. He pondered for a moment, and then asked me a rather unexpected question, of the type where the questioner already knows the answer: "Do you know what the main means of goods transport over land was in France in the eighth century?" I shook my head in bafflement. Garret gave his characteristic chortle. "The camel!" he declared. (I have no idea if this is true, and suspect that it isn't.)

He also wrote the foreword to the book that my father had finished writing the week before his own death in 1990, and gave the first of a series of annual lectures dedicated to his memory - the title was "What Makes Politics Tick? Interests, Ideals or Emotions?" and it was a typically quirky reflection on his own time at the top; by a coincidence of timing, the day he delivered it in Belfast was the day that Margaret Thatcher resigned, and he leavened his text with some personal anecdotes (I remember one about them both being soaked to the skin while on a boat ride at the European summit in Corfu). Someone asked him how he thought Charles Haughey, his enemy and successor, would deal with the recent election of Mary Robinson as president of Ireland. He gave his characteristic chortle. "The Taoiseach," he declared, "is a pragmatist." And so it proved.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam, as they say.
Tags: deaths, world: ireland
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