Garret FitzGerald will stand out as a man who changed Ireland.
He changed our attitudes to the Northern question, helping us to see it as a matter of people and their allegiance and how these can best be respected, and no longer simple as a matter of territorial claim and counterclaim.
He changed attitudes to Europe, seeing that Ireland could do best in Europe, if it contributed creatively to goals and ambitions of other members, and to achieving closer Union, rather than focussing exclusively on our own needs and what we could extract from common funds. Fluent in French and Spanish, he was enthusiastic about all the good things we shared with our fellow Europeans.
He also had a new and optimistic approach to economics. He believed that, if problems were researched and analysed properly, they could be solved by public and private sectors working together in a planned way.
As a journalist, he continued to enlighten, entertain, and sometimes challenge his readers right up to the end of his life.
He was always interested in the opinions of people younger than himself, but did not conceal his own convictions,
I first got to know Garret FitzGerald when I was one of his students in UCD. Garret lectured us on his great interest, economic statistics. He convinced all of us that the available statistics were a greatly underused resource for those who wanted to understand what was going on in the Irish Economy.
Around that time I also joined the Fine Gael party as a member in Dunboyne and of the Students Branch. That also brought me into contact with Garret, who had recently been elected as a Fine Gael Senator. The mother of one of my closet’s friends, David Clarke, was a close relative of Garret’s late wife, Joan, so I got to know Garret socially, as well as through politics and his academic work.
What struck me most forcibly at that time was his relentless enthusiasm and optimism. He was often criticised for speaking too fast, and writing sentences that were to long. But these supposed faults were really just an indication of a man who felt that there was so much to do, and so little time in which to do it.
As a student of economics, I also found his regular articles in the “Irish Times” to be very helpful in relating the insights of economics to the practically problems of the day.
Another thing that struck me was his tremendous enthusiasm for Ireland in taking its place in what was to become the European Union. He was active in committees studying the preparedness, or lack of preparedness, of different sectors of our economy for the stiff competition they would face in a free trade area with Britain, and with the rest of Europe.
He strongly supported the work of the then Government, and of the Fine Gael leaders of the time, James Dillon and Liam Cosgrave, in pursuit of Ireland’s application to join the then European Common Market.
He also had a very good understanding of the way the politics of a United Europe would work for a small country, like Ireland. I remember in him telling me many times that Ireland could do best in Europe if it was able to identify its interest with the interests of Europe as a whole. Ireland needed to use its ingenuity to find a way of formulating what it wanted, as part of a proposal that met a wider need. In the same spirit, he strongly supported the central role of the European Commission, as the body that could find a synthesis of the interests of all members, and he was opposed to Inter – Governmental deals, which tended to serve only the big countries.
Garret was a very successful Minister for External Affairs in the Coalition Government led by Liam Cosgrave. He energised the Irish Foreign Service and collaborated closely with Liam Cosgrave in framing the Sunningdale Agreement. This agreement, negotiated back in 1973, provided the template for the eventual settlement reached in 1998 in the Good Friday Agreement. It is such a pity that so many had to die before the Sunningdale model was finally accepted by the entire spectrum of Unionism and Nationalism in both parts of Ireland.
Garret FitzGerald became the leader of Fine Gael in the aftermath of the 1977 Election. The party had lost numerous seats and was facing the prospect of a long and demoralising period in opposition. It is entirely characteristic of Garret FitzGerald that he was not prepared to settle fatalistically for that. Few displayed as much energy as Garret FitzGerald did in reviving the fortunes of the Fine Gael party in the period between 1977 and 1979. It was due almost entirely to his leadership that the party was able to score very good results in 1979 local and European Elections. This set the scene for Fine Gael’s success in the 1981 General Election.
I became the Minister for Finance in the Government that Garret formed after that Election. We faced a truly awful financial situation. We were able, with the support of Labour Ministers, to prepare, introduce and pass a supplementary budget within barely one month of taking office. This speed was critical in maintaining Ireland’s worthiness.
Subsequently we introduced, again with the full agreement of both parties in Government, a Budget for 1982, in January of that year. The Government did not have a majority in the Dail and had no permanent pacts with independent Deputies. So we knew that there was a high risk that the Budget might not pass the Dail. The choice was clear, we could either do what we believed was necessary, whatever the electoral consequence, or temporise and sink slowly under our problems. Without hesitation, Garret chose the former course and the measures in that budget were largely implemented by the subsequent Government.
The Anglo Irish Agreement, which he negotiated with the support of Peter Barry and Dick Spring, was a crucial milestone on the road toward a more constructive relationship between Nationalism and Unionism on the island.
In Government in the 1980s, we faced the need to check public spending growth. He was always insistent on maintaining spending on education because of its lasting benefit, and I think this priority was crucial in laying the ground for growth in the 1990s.
One of the highlights of my time in Washington as Ambassador, was when Garret, and his grand daughter came to dine. He kept the guests, Irish, British and American, magnificently entertained with a constant stream of anecdote, opinion and self caricature,
Ireland , and the world, have lost a great citizen.
Finola and I extend our deepest sympathy to John, Mary and Mark and their families at this very sad time