Former Taoiseach and influential figure in British-Irish relations, Garret FitzGerald, died recently after a short illness.
Fitzgerald was born in 1926, and was the son of highly political parents. His father, Desmond FitzGerald, was Minister for External Affairs and had been involved with Sinn Féin during the Irish war of independence. His mother, Mabel Washington McConnell, of Ulster Protestant descent, was also a nationalist.
In his early years FitzGerald lectured in economics in University College Dublin before becoming a Senator in 1965. He became a TD in 1969 and served as Minister for Foreign Affairs during the 1973-77 Fine Gael-Labour coalition. As Minister, he helped negotiate the Sunningdale Agreement which led to the short-lived power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.
During this time Dr FitzGerald was a leading figure in the ‘just society’ wing of Fine Gael, working with others to advocate more pluralist, liberal policies.
After Fine Gael lost office in 1977 he became party leader.
The 1980s saw intense rivalry between FitzGerald and then Fianna Fáil leader, Charles Haughey, as power swung between the two parties four times between 1981 and 1987. In 1981 he formed a minority Fine Gael-Labour government which collapsed when its second Budget included a proposal for introducing VAT on children’s shoes.
He became Taoiseach again in November 1982, leading another Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Northern Ireland was an area of sharp disagreement between FitzGerald’s Fine Gael and Haughey’s Fianna Fáil during this time. Though Haughey often displayed strident nationalism, it was Fitzgerald who brokered the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Margaret Thatcher. This gave the Republic a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland. The Agreement came only one year after Thatcher’s notorious “out, out, out” comments on the New Ireland Forum proposals, and marked a new phase in Anglo-Irish relations.
Whilst he failed in his attempt to legalise divorce, his crusade to liberalise Ireland ensured contraception was legalised in 1985. His government struggled to rectify Ireland’s massive economic problems, however, and in 1987 the coalition collapsed, again over budgetary issues.
In 1987 FitzGerald resigned as party leader. After retiring from politics in 1992 he made regular media contributions, including a weekly column in the Irish Times (that was often critical of economic policy during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years). He also wrote several books.
His death coincided with the first visit by a British monarch to the South during his lifetime. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said FitzGerald’s “commitment to achieving peace and reconciliation on this island, and between Ireland and Britain, reached its fruition (this very week) with the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland.”
He is predeceased by his wife, Joan, and is survived by his three children, Mary, John and Mark.