« | Home | »

Garret FitzGerald


For a country that appears to show no great regard for highbrows, Ireland has had its fair share of intellectuals in government office, from Justin Keating and Conor Cruise O’Brien in the 1970s to Michael D. Higgins and Martin Mansergh more recently. Yet none rose as far as Garret FitzGerald, the two-term taoiseach who died yesterday. FitzGerald began his career as an academic economist before entering the Dáil and assuming leadership of Fine Gael, and never quite lost his donnish air.

Fitzgerald’s scholarly training could sometimes prove useful in a tight corner. During the long negotiations that spawned the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Margaret Thatcher objected to his account of Catholic ‘alienation’ from the state in Northern Ireland. That, she sternly informed him, was a Marxist term, and she would not entertain such nonsense. FitzGerald gave her an impromptu lecture on the respectable Hegelian origins of the concept, and business could resume. Doubtless Thatcher would have been even more disturbed to read FitzGerald’s piece in the LRB of November 1979, in which he noted the benefits for the Unionist elite of ‘encouraging working-class Protestant fears of Catholics as a means of diverting attention from any potential movement to the left among the mass of the workers’.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement’s practical effects were less important than its symbolic value – Thatcher’s recognition that Northern Ireland was not ‘as British as Finchley’ – and its impact on the political growth of Sinn Féin, whose surge following the hunger strikes was halted and did not resume until the IRA called a ceasefire. FitzGerald was concerned that Sinn Féin would replace the moderate SDLP and establish a foothold south of the border if the two governments let things drift any longer. His dislike of the Provos was visceral, but he could show more understanding of their position than the strident Provo-bashers of the London and Dublin media: his LRB piece on the impasse of the Good Friday Agreement, published in September 1999, acknowledges the difficulties faced by Gerry Adams as he attempted to wind down the ‘armed struggle’.

Yet the political dynamic set in train by FitzGerald and Thatcher has delivered precisely the outcome they sought to forestall: the Provos have routed the SDLP north of the border, and a Fine Gael-led government in the South has to face questioning from a Sinn Féin bloc with Adams at the helm. This is not the only surprising ripple of FitzGerald’s interventions. In 1968, he tried to change the name of his party to ‘Fine Gael – Social Democratic Party’ and inject some left-of-centre themes into its programme. That project had run into the ground by the time FitzGerald became leader: nobody would have suspected his 1980s governments of harbouring progressive intent. He never drifted too far from economic orthodoxy, though his columns in the Irish Times raised some unfashionable concerns about wealth redistribution during the tax-cutting hysteria of the Celtic Tiger years. Now, with the boom in tatters, the social-democratic ground in Irish politics is being occupied by Sinn Féin, while Fine Gael delivers austerity with a gusto that would make Thatcher proud.

Comments on “Garret FitzGerald”

  1. Irishman says:

    It is incorrect to state that Garret FitzGerald failed in his attempt to bring a social democratic element to Fine Gael. The party under his leadership was much more progressive than it was under Liam Cosgrave in the 1960s and 70s. Contrary to Mr Finn’s statement, FitzGerald’s governments in the 1980s did indeed display ‘progressive intent’, especially in social and economic policies. Witness the attempt to change the constitution so as to allow for divorce. True, the government lost the referendum, but it still displayed ‘progressive intent’. In the area of economic policy, FitzGerald rejected advice that only drastic cuts in public expenditure would sort out Ireland’s economic woes. Instead, he increased taxes on high earners. By protecting those on social welfare he again displayed ‘progressive intent’. Some might deride such policies as mere crumbs. However, when FitzGerald lost power to Fianna Fáil in 1987, progressive thought went out the window as massive cuts in social expenditure were implemented. Only then was it that many came to appreciate FitzGerald’s ‘progressive intent’.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement