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.