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Death of Garret Fitzgerald

by Frank Schnittger Thu May 19th, 2011 at 08:07:53 AM EST

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Garret Fitzgerald (1926-2011), Taoiseach (1981-1987), has died today aged 85.  He was one of the great reforming politicians in Irish political life and played a major role in transforming Ireland from an inward looking, chauvinistic, bigoted and impoverished backwater into a modern European political state.

His family had deep roots in the war of independence and the civil war which followed, but many of his friends came from the other side in the Civil War divide. His mother was a protestant republican who supported the anti-Treaty side, and his father a pro-Treaty Catholic nationalist. He was one of the world's great uniters: instrumental in the breaking down of barriers between Nationalist and Unionist, British and Irish, theocratic conservatives and liberal Europeans.

His "Constitutional Crusade" was critical to the eventual negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement and to the normalisation of relations between Ireland and Britain which is currently being underlined by the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland. He even managed to get around Margaret Thatcher after her famous "out, out, out" speech appeared to reject every option for moving the Northern Ireland situation forward.

Unusually for an Irish politician, he was something of an intellectual and a prolific writer - his columns in the Irish Times appearing regularly right up to his death. Reputedly he was replaced by three people and a computer when he left his first job organising timetables for Aer Lingus.  However he was also much loved as a convivial conversationalist and cuddly grandfather figure who was caught in public wearing odd shoes because he didn't want to awaken his wife by switching on the light whilst dressing early in the morning.

In stark contrast to his adversary and nemesis, Charles Haughey, Fitzgerald was regarded as totally incorruptible and disinterested in the trappings of power and wealth. Theirs was also an extreme contrast in managerial styles: Haughey's Cabinet meetings tended to be sharp, focused and to the point - to the exclusion of all debate on alternative views - whereas Fitzgerald's chairing of the Cabinet often led to interminable discussions to the point where Cabinet Ministers often left confused as to whether any decision had actually been taken. An (untrue) apocryphal story quoted him as saying: "That's all very well in practice, but does it work in theory?".

I had one chance encounter with him that illustrated his personality very vividly.  My family had rented a small broken down cottage on a small Island off Connemara populated by young Mick (aged 73), Old Mick, (aged 92), 5,000 sheep, and what seemed like 500,000 rabbits.  The only access to and from the island was a small open boat with a tiny outboard motor (which broke it's mounting on one of our trips).  One day I planned a trip ashore to buy essential groceries.  A friend staying with us had a sister who had just sat the state examinations and the results were due out that day.  I was asked to ring a certain number and enquire as to her results.

I rang the number from a public phone booth (this was in the time before mobile phones) and was greeted by an oddly familiar and very friendly voice which informed me that said sister was out on a boating trip, but could he help?  I explained that I was ringing on behalf of her sister who was anxious to know her Leaving Certificate examination results. "No problem" he said, and proceeded into what seemed like a 10 minute monologue on how the sister had done well in English considering she hadn't learned the correct poem and had felt her essay had been somewhat iffy.  Geography had been somewhat disappointing considering her favourite country had come up but but then Question 4 - on Physical Geography - had been very difficult.  She got a B3 in Maths which was great given she had only switched to Honours maths the previous year, but the Chemistry experiment had been somewhat obscure...

I had neglected to take a pen and paper with me and was desperately trying to remember Maths, B3; English, C2; History, B1; etc.  when it dawned on me I knew the voice I was speaking to. It was Garret Fitzgerald, Taoiseach at the time, but happening to be staying at the same (privately owned) holiday home at the same time as my friend's sister.  Our conversation illustrated his enormous warmth and interest in everyone and everything about him, his amazing grasp and retention of detail, and his utter inability to assess what the immediate situation actually required: I would be doing well to remember her actual grades in each of her 8 subjects and her grasp of differential calculus wasn't on my agenda.

I never agreed with all of his politics - he was an orthodox if humane economist, a mild social democrat and liberal secularist reformer, and a committed European who supported the recent IMF/ECB/Irish Government "bail-out" - but his presence in Irish politics reminded me that all was not reducible to stupid, narrow, self-interested individualism and craven submission to the then dominant Catholic Church. His humanity and commitment to public service (and private decency) shone through.  He will be much missed as political pygmies take the stage in Ireland, Europe, and beyond.

Go n-éirí an bóthar leat

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu May 19th, 2011 at 08:33:54 PM EST

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