Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

'Father of the Country' who truly transcended politics

Garret FitzGerald enjoyed a unique status in Ireland that transcended all the usual barriers politicians face. He was acceptable to all sides and spoke to all Irishmen and women with an egalitarianism and sense of justice that made him a truly loved figure. It also raised him to the status of Father of the Country.

In the broadest possible sense, he presided with distinction and integrity over modern Irish political life, his active career in politics and public affairs dating back to the 1960s.

As a young journalist starting out at the beginning of that decade, I came under his direct influence. As a sub-editor in the 'Irish Times', I was invariably given his weekly column to edit, a mass of closely typed words dealing with statistics and economics, telling us what was wrong with our public service and our political leadership.

Garret FitzGerald had a wide vision and was widely read. He had by then been involved in journalism for a number of years, writing on the Irish economy -- for a time using a pseudonym because he was employed by Aer Lingus with responsibility for the company's economic strategy.

He later wrote for the 'Financial Times' and was the paper's Dublin correspondent. He spoke French and was among the earliest of Irish commentators to espouse the European model for future growth.

FitzGerald was dedicated in a broad way to Fine Gael. He did not stand for the Dail in the 1965 general election but was later elected to the Seanad.

For a time, he worked closely with the party leader Liam Cosgrave, but then differed from him over direction and became associated with the 'Mongrel Foxes' who sought, ineffectually, to change the leader.

This took place in a grim period politically for Fine Gael. The party seemed unable to break the hold on power exercised by Fianna Fail.

FitzGerald entered the Dail in 1969, playing a major part in the debates following the 1970 Arms Crisis. He led a revolt that attempted to remove Liam Cosgrave. Like most such episodes in Irish politics, it failed.

Shortly afterwards, Jack Lynch called an election and was narrowly defeated by Fine Gael and Labour.

Up to then, I had watched politics from a distance. But in 1973, I joined the press gallery to write a regular Dail sketch for the Irish Independent and then, every Saturday, a column entitled 'Politics and Politicians'.

Garret was Polonius -- loquacious, statistically verbose, colourful and elegant, but also breathless with the task of putting forward multitudinous ideas, objections and recommendations.

He would have liked the job of minister for finance and at one point expected it. But Richie Ryan was closer to Cosgrave. I also suspected that Cosgrave did not want to be out-talked on economics.

Given the circumstances of Irish foreign policy at the time, appointing FitzGerald to this portfolio was a generous act, in view of the wide gap between the two men.

It was a fascinating time. Garret was an intellectual among other intellectuals in a talented coalition partnership whose leading figures -- Justin Keating, Conor Cruise O'Brien and himself -- seemed to revel in the disparity between what they had brought to the new government, compared to the sorry and divided party in opposition, with Jack Lynch facing a simmering revolt from disgruntled supporters of Charles Haughey.

Ireland had joined the Common Market before Lynch left office in 1973 and this changed the focus for FitzGerald.

Part of his ambition -- to bring Ireland into Europe -- had been fulfilled and a new wave of reforms swept into Ireland as a result of closer ties with Europe.

The Cosgrave government remained conservative -- particularly over moral issues, such as contraception and divorce -- and Garret FitzGerald, despite his espousal of a society in the Republic that would be more acceptable to the Irish who inhabited the Northern Six Counties, had to settle for Catholic conservatism.

The modern Irish State emerged slowly in the Dail of that period. It came to a dramatic end with Jack Lynch's landslide victory in 1977, an electoral triumph that was followed, two years later, by the narrow victory of Charles Haughey for the leadership of Fianna Fail.

FitzGerald had been a stern critic of Haughey over the attempted illegal importation of arms and the missing £100,000 that had been voted for the relief of distress in Northern Ireland.

On Haughey's appointment, he laid a charge that was hard to substantiate when he referred to Haughey's "flawed pedigree". The best part of two decades were to pass before some substance was provided through the tribunals.

HAUGHEY as a leader was a flop and FitzGerald, who had succeeded Cosgrave abruptly after the 1977 defeat, had two periods in office, from 1981 to the early part of 1982 and from the end of that year until 1987.

He knew of the phone-tapping affecting Geraldine Kennedy and myself during that year in opposition and he precipitated the exposure of this, always behaving in a kind and understanding way towards us.

The divide between the two sides in Irish politics widened during the time of Haughey's leadership of one side and Garret FitzGerald's leadership of the other. He kept whatever moralistic views he had largely to himself but governed on the basis of the country's interest and with a fairness and objectivity that contrasted with the approach of Fianna Fail.

His first period as Taoiseach depended on Noel Browne and Sean Dublin Bay Loftus and ended with the fiasco of VAT on children's shoes collapsing the Budget. It was followed by the terrible year of 1982.

FitzGerald returned to power at the end of it and had a good four years at an extremely difficult moment economically, with high inflation. It was also a time of north-south tension.

He dealt valiantly with Margaret Thatcher, trying to teach her about Ireland and how she should handle its northern population. He had modest success and was more acceptable, in her eyes, than Haughey had been. Nevertheless, what he thought he could accomplish took far longer than the time he had for it, something which she spotted and he did not.

He resigned after his 1987 defeat and quit his Dail seat five years later, returning to his first love, journalism, with a regular, discursive, well informed but rather boring column in the 'Irish Times' that went on and on.

He told me he needed the money. This seemed the best of reasons for going on and on.

He was a very likable man, but a bit overwhelming. He had views on everything and he offered them liberally to all who would listen. Though it sounds disrespectful to say so, this capacity was enjoyable to experience because it contrasted so exceptionally with the normal conversations that one might have with politicians.

For a start, he spoke the truth. He was a truly sincere man, something of a theologian -- Christian and moralistic.

He was also witty and quick-witted, distinct capacities that were enjoyed by those who were at all close to him. His devotion to his wife Joan, who pre-deceased him after a long and disabling illness, was a paradigm for marriage.

One witness to it over many years described it as "one of the great love affairs of the 20th century". It certainly was. There was a binding of two well-balanced minds and hearts.

He became, as I have said, a Father to the Irish nation and -- like real fathers, as opposed to imagined ones -- he irritated and annoyed the men and women for whom he had given so much in Irish public life.

In time, and with him now vanished from us, we will come to recognise what a fine and dedicated service he gave and how selfless it all was.

There truly are very few politicians about whom one can say such things.