Talking about Northern Ireland

Tom Wilson

  • All in a Life by Garret FitzGerald
    Macmillan, 674 pp, £25.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 333 47034 6

It has often been said that the Irish tragedy can be ended only by political means. In this political autobiography, Dr Garret FitzGerald gives a fascinating account of his own attempts to contribute to this end. It was a role for which he seemed better-equipped than any other party leader in the Republic. His political lineage as a nationalist was impeccable: both his parents had been engaged in the struggle for national independence. When British rule came to an end and civil war broke out within the Irish Free State, his father took the side of the new government, in which he subsequently became Foreign Minister. Through his mother, an Ulster Presbyterian by origin, he also acquired contacts in the North quite unusual among Dublin politicians. To the experience of growing up in a distinguished political and literary family, he could add his own experience as an administrator and an academic.

He went into politics committed to the building of a just society – and justice was to extend to Northern Ireland. Irish unity must be by consent. Admittedly he also endorsed the familiar counter-factual statement that ‘history has created in the island of Ireland one nation.’ But he has always stressed that there are ‘two traditions’, and tradition is, after all, at the heart of nationalism. When the people of each tradition cannot agree to membership of any state acceptable to the other, it cannot seriously be held that they constitute a single nation, but FitzGerald may have come as close to reality in his use of such terms as is consistent with political survival in the Republic.

The author recognises that, as a condition for unity by consent, the Republic should ‘provide the same civil liberties in the whole island as at present exist in the North’. He refers in particular to the sale of contraceptives and to divorce. The first point has now been substantially met, but his own attempt to liberalise the law against divorce in 1986 by means of the necessary referendum was defeated by quiet but pervasive clerical resistance. Moreover, although opinions and attitudes have changed in the South – perhaps to a greater extent than is appreciated in the North – there has been no loosening of the tight clerical grip on schools and hospitals. Thus the Republic remains an unattractive place to liberal-minded people in Ulster – or anywhere else.

A united Republic would encounter immense economic difficulties. For these reasons, as well as the conflict of national traditions, unification will not be on the cards for an indefinitely long period. FitzGerald has accepted this fact, but has sought to shape constitutional change in Northern Ireland in ways that would not only be conducive to his long-term objective but would meanwhile, with consent to unity lacking, give the Republic an important say in the affairs of the North. He does not seem to have perceived that pursuit of the interim objective might provoke bitter resentment which would make it harder to achieve his ultimate goal. All of this is illustrated by the contribution he made to the two major ‘initiatives’ since the abolition of the Stormont parliament in 1972: first, power-sharing with an Irish dimension in 1973-4, and secondly, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. His interesting account of the first can be compared with those given by Brian Faulkner and by Merlyn Rees respectively. No one else has so far given a comparable account of the second.

‘Power-sharing’ has been a confusing term, for it suggests that the Catholic minority in Ulster had been denied normal political rights. Its meaning is more specific and local. The Unionist Party had always had a strong majority in the old provincial parliament because the dominant issue at every election was the continuing existence of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. In fact, as it happened, the number of seats held reflected votes cast much more accurately than in Great Britain, but this was cold comfort to the representatives of the Catholic minority, who had no chance of forming a government. Faulkner had therefore proposed, belatedly, that there should be three parliamentary committees, with the chairmanship of two guaranteed to the opposition: but the SDLP decided at that time to boycott Stormont. In 1973, a year or so after the old parliament had been prorogued, the new Secretary of State (Whitelaw) proposed not only PR in elections to a new Assembly but also what amounted to PR in the composition of an Executive – double-barrelled PR or permanent coalition government. This is what is meant by ‘power-sharing’ in the Ulster context.

Although the Unionist Party was split, Faulkner had enough support to allow him, together with the SDLP and the Alliance, to bring this unusual scheme into operation. In its origin, the idea owed much to FitzGerald, at that time Foreign Minister in a Fine Gael/Labour coalition. Like any form of coalition government, it was bound to encounter special difficulties, but the new scheme seemed, nevertheless, to work quite well during its short life. (As a member of the advisory Economic Council, I was in a position to observe how Faulkner and Hume were working together in the difficult area of industrial development.) Moreover, there appears to have been reasonable public support initially, even from the Protestant majority. But disillusionment and bitterness were soon to follow.

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