Garret Fitzgerald

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Garret Fitzgerald

The Irish taoiseach or prime minister Garret FitzGerald (born 1926) was deeply committed to religious and cultural tolerance and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and to constitutional and structural changes serving those ends.

Garret FitzGerald was born on February 9, 1926, the son of Desmond and Mabel (McConnell) Fitz-Gerald. Both parents had been involved in the Irish language restoration movement, the Gaelic League, the 1916 Easter Week uprising, and the insurrection of 1919-1921, although the mother was an Ulster Presbyterian. His father had been minister for external affairs, 1922-1927, and minister for defense, 1927-1932, of the Irish Free State.

FitzGerald received his primary education at St. Brigid's School in Bray, County Wicklow, and started his secondary education at an Irish-language boarding school, Coláiste na Rinne, in Dungarvan, County Waterford, but completed it at Belvedere College in Dublin. He studied economics at University College, Dublin, where he received a Ph.D. while also taking a law degree at King's Inn and being called to the bar. In 1947 he and Joan O'Farrell were married. They had three children, a daughter and two sons.

From 1947 to 1958 he was employed by Aer Lingus (Irish Air Lines). He also was Irish correspondent for the BBC, the Economist, and the Financial Times and economic correspondent for the Irish Times. He was a Rockefeller research assistant at Trinity College, Dublin, 1958-1959, and college lecturer in the Department of Economics, University College, Dublin, 1959-1973. He wrote two books in this period: State-Sponsored Bodies (1959) and Planning in Ireland (1968).

From 1965 to 1969 he was a member of Seanad Eireann, the upper house of the Irish legislature, which has essentially a delaying power in legislating. He was one of the talented younger figures in the opposition Fine Gael (Tribe of Gaels) Party. That party had evolved out of the Cumann na nGaedheal (League of Gaels) Party that had governed in the Free State era. Fine Gael was the opposition for all but two brief coalition ministries, 1948-1951 and 1954-1957. FitzGerald and associates sought to revitalize their party in the later 1960s by projecting a social justice theme in contrast to the conservative reputation the party had during the era of Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) ascendancy, 1932-1973. Elected to Dáil Eireann (the Irish Parliament) in 1969, he served as opposition spokesman on education until 1972 and then as spokesman on finance.

The Problem of Northern Ireland

In February 1973 FitzGerald became minister of external affairs in a Fine Gael-Labour coalition government headed by Liam Cosgrave. He participated in the Sunningdale Conference, December 6-9, 1973, which set up a power-sharing executive for Northern Ireland that for the first time included minority (Catholic and Nationalist) political leaders. Alas, the experiment collapsed within a few months following a general strike by workers from the majority Protestant community.

FitzGerald made a favorable impression as a participant in, and later (January to June 1975) as president of, the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community, which Ireland had formally entered in January 1973. Understandably, he became the almost automatic successor to Liam Cosgrave when the latter stepped down as Fine Gael leader following Fianna Fáil's return to power in the June 1977 election.

As opposition leader, FitzGerald modernized the party organization, and his efforts paid off when Fine Gael increased its seats in the Dáil in the June 1981 election by 22. That and the 15 Labour seats gave the coalition a two vote plurality over Fianna Fáil, but the ability to govern was dependent on the shaky tolerance of independent members more hostile to the Fianna Fáil leader, Charles Haughey, than sympathetic to the coalition.

The hunger strike in Northern Ireland by prisoners demanding political prisoner status was on at the time. It was only called off in October after 11 men had died. A month later FitzGerald and the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, met and institutionalized cooperation between their governments with the formation of an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council.

The Irish government, however, fell in January 1982 when the independents joined with Fianna Fáil in opposing severe tax increments necessitated by an enormous deficit. The Fianna Fáil government that came to power after the February election also had only a plurality and was dependent on independent votes, which votes it lost the following November when it had to engage in fiscal conservatism.

Governing with a Majority

The election of November 24, 1982, the third in 18 months, gave the Fine Gael and Labour combination an absolute majority. FitzGerald's second government, with the new young Labour leader Dick Spring as tánaiste (deputy premier), sought to bring inflation and governmental indebtedness under control, to implement legal and constitutional reforms to make Ireland more congenial for religious pluralism, and to advance the Anglo-Irish process toward eventual accord in Northern Ireland.

In September 1983 a constitutional amendment protecting "the right to life of the unborn," which sought to add constitutional absoluteness to existing Irish statutes prohibiting abortion, was approved in a referendum by two-thirds of the voters. The Taoiseach had opposed the measure for being too legally imprecise, and leaders of the Irish Protestant community opposed it for being too reflective of a specifically Roman Catholic ethos. In 1985, despite the opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the government succeeded in legalizing the sale of contraceptives to adults. Later serious consideration was given to constitutional revision to allow under certain circumstances divorce or marital dissolution in Ireland. In June 1986 Ireland voted on the question of repealing the national ban on divorce. Despite the urging of Prime Minister FitzGerald, a strong majority voted to continue to prohibit divorce.

Inflation Woes

The government's fiscal policy, dictated by one of the world's largest per capita foreign indebtedness and national deficit, was painful, prompting a series of unfavorable results in public opinion polls, especially since unemployment and youthful emigration continued to grow. However, the inflation was brought under control.

In May 1983 the government convened a New Ireland Forum attended by representatives of all constitutional nationalist parties in the Republic and Northern Ireland. The forum's report, issued on May 2, 1984, made three suggestions for settling the Northern Irish inbroglio: a unitary Irish state, a federal arrangement between North and South, and/or Anglo-Irish joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland. However, the report also indicated an openness to any other suggestion that would allow tolerance and equity toward the two traditions in Northern Ireland.

After a meeting with FitzGerald in November 1984, Margaret Thatcher bluntly dismissed the three options of the forum. However, the Anglo-Irish consultations continued, culminating in a formal agreement signed on November 15, 1985, at Hillsborough in Northern Ireland by both premiers. The agreement gives the Irish Republic an unprecedented role as a participant in an on-going conference dealing with policy formulation in Northern Ireland on issues affecting the nationalist majority, but also specifically commits both governments to the guarantee that Northern Ireland will not be coerced into a united Ireland without the consent of the majority of its population. The extraordinary conference arrangement will disestablish itself to the degree that devolved institutions in Northern Ireland receiving the consensus of both communities come into being. The latter would be the beginning of that community reconciliation that FitzGerald, sensitive to Protestant anxieties because of his maternal relations as well as to Catholic grievances, always regarded as preliminary to the achievement of a "New" and/or "United" Ireland.

FitzGerald retired from Parliament in January 1993 but kept active in politics as a senior statesman. He wrote a weekly column in the Irish Times and was an active lecturer abroad, making appearances at many American colleges and universities. He was named Commander of France's Légion Honneur in 1995.

Further Reading

FitzGerald can best be understood by reading his book Toward a New Ireland (London, 1972) in which he set forth the views which generally governed his public career. For background on Irish politics up to the commencement of his second ministry see Bruce Arnold, What Kind of Country (London, 1984), and for more general background consult John A. Murphy, Ireland in the Twentieth Century (Dublin, 1975), and Ronan Fanning, Independent Ireland (Dublin, 1983).

Additional Sources

FitzGerald, Garret, All In A Life: An Autobiography, (1991). □