THE FITZGERALD LEGACY

27 May 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The death of former Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald has sparked an outpouring of public sentiment, tinged with spontaneous affection, rarely evoked by the passing of a major political figure.
Longevity had been kind to the former Fine Gael leader.
He had made the transition from active political life as easily as, at a comparatively late age, he had entered it – maturing into a magus-like commentator on economic and social issues whose newspaper columns, television analysis and campaigning on European referenda distilled a lifetime’s scholarship and projected a coherent, progressive worldview that often chimed in harmony with the new anthems of a changing Ireland.
A good deal of what he had worked for but left unrealised during his political career was beginning to manifest about him.
In this process his image altered. The lofty intellectual aloofness that had once limned his depiction softened into an avuncular and benign profile, and he became a public figure increasingly defined by the humane and tolerant facets of his personality.
Ultimately it was as much for his qualities as a human being as for his contribution as a politician, academic and economist that he earned the place in the esteem of the nation that resulted in his death being so widely and profoundly mourned.
Dr FitzGerald will undoubtedly be remembered as a man of visionary ideas, a man in some respects before his time.
In the era in which he came to political prominence, many of the objectives he set himself for reforming the social outlook of Ireland, and changing what he termed the “deeply rooted Partition mentality” that prevailed with regard to the Northern Ireland problem, were frustrated by forces of conservatism and mistrust.
His vision for Ireland has come to be partly realised, but at the time he was trying to implement it he found he could not force the pace of change, and was often not thanked for his prompting efforts.
The qualities for which he has been celebrated in the many tributes engendered by his passing were often the very ones that his political opponents, and the sections of the media antithetical to his views, used as weapons against him during the height of his political career.
As Taoiseach or Opposition leader, he was frequently derided by his critics as a statistic-obsessed dweller in an intellectual ivory tower, a “bumbling professor” type with no instinct for the pragmatics of politics – the polar opposite of his great rival Charles Haughey.
The sparks ignited by the friction of their two sharply divergent personalities frequently illuminated the Irish political era that Dr FitzGerald and Mr Haughey bestrode.
Commentators occasionally succumb to the natural inclination to present their relationship in terms of a Nixon-Kennedy or Gladstone-Disraeli dichotomy – titanic struggles of character and outlook that helped to shape their age.
It seems more accurate however to view the political careers of both men, and their frequent antagonisms, as being dictated by the seismic events, of the national economy and the Northern troubles, that they were caught up in and subsumed by.
As much as Mr Haughey, Dr FitzGerald found his career confined, and confounded, by these challenges.
But there was an extraordinary tenacity as well as a purity of vision about the FG leader’s objective of reconciling the unionist and nationalist traditions on the island.
The first flowerings of that harmonisation that we are now tentatively experiencing owe a considerable debt to Dr FitzGerald’s diplomatic as well as ideological groundwork, his conviction that a pluralist consensus of traditions could be achieved and sustained.
He displayed extraordinary forbearance when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly repudiated the alternatives for political reform in Northern Ireland put forward by the New Ireland Forum in November 1984.
It is hard to imagine any other Irish politician of that time being able to summon the restraint and renewed negotiating determination that Dr FitzGerald conjured to enjoin Mrs Thatcher, one year later, to append her signature to the Hillsborough Agreement’s acknowledgement of the Republic of Ireland’s legitimate claim to a say in how the North should be governed.
The substantial legacy that has flowed from that seems to refute the notion that the Taoiseach of the time was unlearned in the ways of political finesse.
He never wanted for political courage. The role of church influence in education might seem to many an urgent contemporary issue seeing serious address for the first time. In the early 1970s, when opposition education spokesman, Dr FitzGerald advocated strongly for a system of new community schools free of church control – and drew sufficient clerical opprobrium to find himself shifted to the finance portfolio.
During the early and mid 1980s, Dr FitzGerald was a frequent official visitor to the Cavan/Monaghan constituency and carried out several important public functions here in his capacity as Taoiseach.
In an era when opportunities to engage directly with Ministers of Government were infrequently afforded to the media, its provincial manifestations in particular, and access to the leader of the country virtually taboo, Dr FitzGerald as Taoiseach granted several extensive interviews to this newspaper, and was as keen to engage his interrogators upon local issues as they were to elicit his views about them.
A journalist himself for a period, Dr FitzGerald did much to improve the accessibility and accountability of representatives of government that the media and public now take for granted.
He was a man who lived the values he espoused, who reconciled the occasional perception of being out of step with the prevailing mood by the interior comfort of knowing he was being true to his own mind and heart. These are admirable qualities in any human being, and rare ones in the compromise-ridden realm of politics.
It is still too early for the full social and political legacy of Dr Garret FitzGerald to be defined. Much of what has been written and spoken about him in the aftermath of his death is inevitability hagiographic rather than evaluative.
His contribution to Irish life has been substantial and complex, and its proper estimation is deserving of, and will undoubtedly receive, much deeper and considered analysis to properly measure. While his own modesty might demur, his crystalline intellect would insist on that.
The personal legacy is, however, much clearer: a bright point in the sky for all who take on the onerous responsibilities of political and public life to navigate by.
In choosing a phrase to pay him final tribute, one could do no better than borrow that cited by Acting Co Manager David Fallon at Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council – he was not just a great man, but a good man.

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