If the visit of Queen Elizabeth last week marked a new beginning in Ireland, the death of Garret FitzGerald marked the end of an era.
I would not go so far as Senator John Crown did writing in the Sunday Independent at the weekend that Garret FitzGerald was the best taoiseach we ever had. I could make that argument in favour of almost every taoiseach and I have known and spoken to every taoiseach, except John A Costello, from de Valera to Enda Kenny. But I do not think I would single Garret out above everybody else, whereas others might.
He was certainly a man of integrity and honour. He was also a man of vision but he was leader of a party that could hardly see beyond its nose. While Garret could be described as a forward-looking man, Fine Gael could be regarded as a backward-looking party. That was not his fault; he did succeed in attracting many young like-minded people to Fine Gael but somehow I think that in recent years the party he once led has reverted to type.
Garret’s failures were probably greater than his achievements. Perhaps it could be said that he was a man before his time. Ireland was not ready for all the changes that he planned to bring about.
It could be argued, however, that Garret FitzGerald prepared the ground for the changes in legislation and in Irish attitudes that have taken place since he retired as taoiseach after Fine Gael’s defeat in the 1987 general election.
I got to know him as well as any reporter covering politics did in Dublin in the 1970s and 1980s. While he was almost always delighted to talk to the press, having been a journalist himself before he entered politics, he was not always the easiest man to report on.
I remember once interviewing him as we went from door to door during a Dublin Central by-election in the early 1980s. It was a very dark evening and the rain was belting down in the Marino area of the city. I was getting an exclusive interview but he was not saying anything of vital national importance or interest. Or if he was, I was not catching it. It was almost impossible to keep up with his rapid torrent of words and half sentences. It took me a long time to make sense of what I had written down in my rain-drenched notebook and all I got for my troubles were a few paragraphs buried inside next day’s Irish Independent.
But then Garret was not a great public speaker. He spoke too quickly and his sentences tumbled into each other. There did not seem to be any full stop, so you could not know where one sentence ended and the next began.
You never doubted his sincerity though. You believed that he believed in what he was saying, and that is something you cannot say about many politicians.
He worked hard to bring about peace on this island both as minister for foreign affairs and as taoiseach. He failed because it would take later taoisigh to discover that there could never be peace in Ireland unless the IRA were taken into the equation.
Of course, he was dealing with Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister, a lady who had little sympathy with Ireland’s cause and who admitted herself that she was not for turning.
Writing in the Irish Times last Saturday, the former leader and founder of the Progressive Democrats, Des O’Malley said that Leinster House in the 1980s was quite a sinister place and that Garret FitzGerald was an antidote to that.
I will not disagree with the second part of that sentence, but I certainly agree that Leinster House could be a sinister place at the time.
Certain sections of the Fianna Fáil party spent their time plotting to undermine the legitimate leadership of the party and certain supporters of the leadership adopted some very unsavoury tactics in their defence of the leader.
I suppose it could be said that to a lot of people Garret FitzGerald was an antidote to all those sinister forces. To those people Garret FitzGerald was “Garret the Good”. As opposed to, I presume, “Charlie the Bad”.
If Charlie Haughey were all that bad, however, is it not amazing that his most formidable opponent in Fianna Fáil, Des O’Malley, supported Haughey in his bid to be taoiseach in 1989. One can never cease to wonder at the ability of politicians to change their minds on any matter when it suits them to do so.
Would it not have been a far more honourable thing for O’Malley to cross the floor of Leinster House and join the ranks of Fine Gael behind Garret FitzGerald?
Garret was never a really true Blue Shirt though. He was more of a social or liberal democrat and was closer to his Labour colleagues in Liam Cosgrave’s cabinet in the early 1970s than he was to his fellow members of Fine Gael.
He was very much in favour of a more fair and just society and would have liked to be able to bring that kind of society about without stepping on too many toes. He knew there was a lot of inequality in Irish society was frustrated by the fact that he could do very little about it.
He might or might not be the best taoiseach of all time. But he is up there with the best of them.