Elaine Byrne, Sunday Business Post, 22 May 2011
‘‘My elder brother’s gone, poetry is daunted; A stave of the barrel is smashed and the wall of learning broken’’ Garret was a political pioneer who didn’t always get it right, but made it his life’s work to improve political and social conditions in Ireland, writes Dr Elaine Byrne
When Garret FitzGerald became taoiseach in 1981, his beloved wife Joan was said to have remarked: ‘‘He belongs to the nation, not to me.” Taoiseach Enda Kenny adopted a similar tone when he described his former party leader as an ‘‘Irish institution’’. So familiar were we with this gentle, gregarious gentleman that we simply knew him as Garret. He was in so many ways the very definition of an establishment figure, a father-like protagonist and quintessential statesman whose private and public life did not distinguish between the values of honesty, respect and dignity. He carried lightly a self-assured authority and genuinely enjoyed – even basked – in the public attention bestowed on him.
The son of a poet needs only words. Energetic, fussy, mischievous, generous, dogmatic, driven, compassionate, statist.
This was the public image of the definitive insider whose influences were decidedly shaped by outsiders. But, most of all, he was a political pioneer who ultimately made liberalism acceptable to conservatives.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Garret was born on February 9,1926, just three years and three months after the foundation of the state. His father, Desmond, was Minister for External Affairs in that first post-independence government, a position that his son would later hold. A sense of duty was inherited.
This ‘‘Englishman who understood the English’’, as Garret described him, had discouraged his son from entering politics. Desmond, however, inadvertently sowed the seeds of political interest when he brought the boy to the Dáil gallery, at 11 years of age, to observe the fiery 1937 Constitution debates.
Garret’s father died when he was just 21; in his autobiography, All In A Life, his mother, Mabel McConnell, a Protestant nationalist from Belfast, stands out as the more political of his parents.
Strong, independent women dominated Garret’s life. It was in UCD that he met Joan O’Farrell over tea after a French Society meeting. Born in Liverpool, brought up in Switzerland and utterly incapable of tolerating nonsense, Joan took ‘‘an instant dislike’’ to her future husband because ‘‘he wore a Belvedere scarf and was absolutely full of himself’’.
Her death in 1999 ended not only 51 years of marriage and a near-osmotic relationship between the two, but also perhaps the most extraordinary political partnership in modern Irish history. Her influence was such that many found it difficult to determine where the influence of one ended and the other began.
After graduating from UCD with a double first in history and French, Garret took up employment with Aer Lingus and was centrally involved in the development of the national airline where he rose to the rank of commercial development superintendent. His first foray into Irish public life was in 1954.The gregarious 28-year-old participated in a Radio Éireann debate, chaired by Cathal O’Shannon, entitled ‘‘Do Dáil deputies earn their salaries?”
His lifelong association with the Irish Times also began in 1954,witha column headlined ‘‘Decline of Irish language.’ Garret finally yielded to the inevitable in 1965.His election as a senator to the industrial and commercial panel marked the beginning of a 27-year career in political office.
His very first Oireachtas speech was on the rather forgettable Turf Development Bill that year, which revealed the underlying essence of his pluralistic political philosophy. Only Garret could possibly have recognised the prospect for co-operation in turf development between nationalists and unionists as an ‘‘opportunity… towards closer cooperation between the North and the south’’.
In 1969,Garret, now 43, succeeded former taoiseach John A Costello as TD for Dublin South East. Within months, he had secured the party’s support for a Northern Ireland policy document he had drafted. Fine Gael accepted the principle that any claim to reunification could be achieved only through the consent of a majority.
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
It was Garret who established the New Ireland Forum in 1983. The three possible alternative structures for a ‘‘new Ireland’’, agreed by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and the SDLP, were roundly dismissed by Margaret Thatcher’s ‘‘Out! Out! Out!” episode of 1984.
It was Garret who then persuaded the formidable British prime minister that instability in the North and the alienation of nationalists was a threat to democracy on the island of Ireland. In his own words: ‘‘I decided to go for broke, launching into a passionate denunciation of British actions – or inactions – in Northern Ireland since the 1960s … My gamble had paid off.”
It was Garret who signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Thatcher in Hillsborough Castle in 1985, some 20 years after his maiden speech on North-South turf cooperation. Dublin now had a formal role in the governance of Northern Ireland for the first time.
The structures of the Anglo-Irish ministerial intergovernmental conference facilitated inches of cooperation.
It was on these foundations that Charles Haughey, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and ultimately Bertie Ahern built the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This was a process born during Garret’s tenure as Minister for Foreign Affairs in the 1973-1977 national coalition, when the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement attempted but failed to introduce the concept of power-sharing.
Between my finger and my thumb?
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
It was under Garret’s leadership of Fine Gael from 1977 to 1987 that Declan Costello’s 1965 Just Society document became mainstream party policy. It had been a long road for the two lifelong friends. At the 1972 Fine Gael ard fheis in Cork, party leader Liam Cosgrave indirectly referred to the liberal wing of the party as ‘‘mongrel foxes’’ that should be rooted out.
Garret electrified the Fine Gael organisation, bringing it within five seats of Fianna Fáil in November 1982, the party’s best ever result until the 2011 election.
His popularity was such that even Bono risked his street cred by taking part in an election photo opportunity with him.
Garret’s two spells as Taoiseach (June 1981-March 1982 and December 1982March 1987) were defined by his ‘‘constitutional crusade’ for a more liberal society. In a landmark RTE radio interview with Gerald Barry, he evoked the memory of Tone and Davis, and spoke of how the Irish state was unacceptable to the tradition of his Northern Protestant mother: ‘‘I want to lead a crusade, a republican crusade to make this a genuine republic.”
But Ireland was not yet ready to be secularised, and the crusade was ‘‘stillborn’’, as he described it in his memoirs. Although Fine Gael’s urban liberals had redefined the party with a social democratic ethos, they failed to move its straitlaced Catholic conservative membership to the left.
The 1983 referendum on abortion was passed despite his reservations, while the 1986 divorce referendum was heavily defeated. In typical Garret fashion, he later expressed regret for not only failing to carry public opinion but acknowledged that ‘‘I was seriously at fault in accepting without adequate consideration or legal advice … the proposed wording when it was put forward by Fianna Fáil’’.
The episode exposed the idealistic nature of a man fascinated with ideas but sometimes unclear on how to implement them. Gemma Hussey noted in her cabinet diaries that Garret’s concern ‘‘to allow such full freedom of speech’’ meant that lengthy cabinet meetings often proved notoriously inconclusive. Indeed, he is reputed to have asked in one such cabinet meeting: ‘‘That’s all right in practice, but how might it work in theory?”
Garret’s first government fell when John Bruton’s budget of January 1982 was defeated by Jim Kemmy’s vote objecting to the imposition of Vat on children’s shoes.
His second government was unable to check the deterioration in the public finances and, by the time it left office in 1987, the national debt had spiralled to 125 per cent of GNP. His government controversially bought a pig in a poke in 1985 by purchasing the Insurance Corporation of Ireland from AIB and undertaking to cover its liabilities, in order to save the bank.
The story of this absent-minded intellectual, who sometimes wore odd socks when Taoiseach, was bound up with his epic battles against his former UCD contemporary. The comments by ‘‘Garret the Good’’ on Haughey’s ‘‘flawed pedigree’’, on the occasion of the latter’s nomination as Taoiseach, served to define two distinct types of moral character and leadership style.
Haughey the chieftain vehemently obstructed and opposed every aspect of Garret’s agenda of reform.
Garret loved to dig. He diligently ploughed on Northern Ireland, Europe, the constitutional crusade and integrity in public life. There was a dogged but polite persistence about it. He didn’t always get it right, particularly on the economy, but he tried. That’s what pioneers do – they break new ground, they scatter new ideas and they ask us to grow our own seeds. In his last speech to the Dáil, in November 1992, he focused on ‘‘the adequacy of our parliamentary institutions in their present form to cope with the challenge of the 21st century’’.
Seamus Heaney translated these words of lament by the 15th-century Gaeilge bard Tadhg Óg ÓhUigínn, who wrote them in memory of his elder brother Fergal Rua. It is about a deep sense of loss shared by the wider community, by Ireland.
My elder brother’s gone, poetry is daunted;
A stave of the barrel is smashed
And the wall of learning broken.
Dr Elaine Byrne is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Trinity College Dublin
The poem quoted in this article is Digging, by Seamus Heaney, from his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, Faber &Faber 1966