It was Garret Fitzgerald and Charles Haughey that started my lifelong interest in the GUBU world of Irish politics, and it was with great sadness that I learned of his passing this morning.
The three elections at the start of the 80s were a crash course for anyone remotely interested in the affairs of the state, and coming as they did in the wake of the hunger strikes in the H-blocks and the shadow of a crushing recession, it was a comprehensive education in nationalism and economics.
I mourn his passing, but not because I rated him as a great leader. It was his tenacity and political stamina despite probably the toughest conditions an Irish statesman has ever faced that made the man.
It was an impossible job, but somehow he managed to do it.
But despite his obvious mastery of economics, he made several bad calls in the 80s and as a result could not deliver growth despite arresting the slide in the economy.
His refusal to meet with the families of the hunger strikers was no doubt an agonising decision, and I strongly believe it was the wrong one, despite the reasons for which it was taken (to preserve fragile relations with the British) – as John Hume, Albert Reynolds and many others have shown since, the vast majority of Republicans are reasonable people who are eager for peace, provided they are granted dignity and respect at the negotiating table.
But Garret continued to chase his dream of peace in the North and a pluralist Ireland, despite criticism from all sides and a deeply unwilling and ungrateful counterpart in the shape of Margaret Thatcher. Without Garret’s efforts in the field of foreign affairs, like his father before him in our fledgling state, it is unlikely that there would be peace today.
It was remarkable to see Peter Robinson in Dublin for the Queen’s visit – once one of the bitterest, most ardent and intransigent voices of Unionism, he came to the capital to honour the Irishmen that died in the Great War fighting for the crown.
It was Garret that started the ball rolling that eventually led the opinions and rhetoric of Robinson and his ilk being transformed.
His death comes as a timely reminder to his successors, inside and outside the government. Over the next few days the likes of Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar will have plenty of opportunities to read once more about their former leader’s exploits in the papers.
If Ireland is to have a future that is not reminiscent of the lost decade of the 80s, they would do well to take heed of his mistakes on both the economy and how he dealt with the more violent wing of Republicanism.
For a lifelong diplomat and academic like Garret, the greatest tribute we can pay is to learn from our mistakes and deliver a newer, better, stronger Ireland – because whatever he did, he never stopped striving for his vision of a just, peaceful, pluralist Ireland, where the Catholic community of his father and the Unionist tradition of his mother could feel at home.
Go raibh míle maith agat a Ghearóid, agus ar dheis Dé go raibh do anam dílis.