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Garret Fitzgerald helped to shape the modern Ireland which the Queen is visiting

Screen shot 2011-05-19 at 18.30.44 Zoe Healy formerly worked as the Conservative Party Chairman’s Press Officer (to Theresa May and Francis Maude).  She also worked for four years with the Fine Gael Press Office under former Taoiseach John Bruton, and returned from the UK to work with Enda Kenny during the 2007 General Election campaign.  She provides PR consultancy and training in Dublin through her business, zenith pr.

The tricolor is flying at half mast this afternoon at Government buildings in Dublin as we learn of the sad passing of our former Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael, Dr Garrett Fitzgerald.  He died after a short illness and was 85.

He would have loved to have been present in Dublin Castle last night as the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, hosted a state dinner to mark the momentous visit of Queen Elizabeth II.  It would have marked the culmination of his political life’s work to see our two countries treat each other with respect and as friends.  Indeed, it was Dr Fitzgerald who initiated the movement to bring tolerance and respect to our islands, end sectarianism and violence, and begin a crusade towards reconciliation.

Dr Fitzgerald played a huge role in Irish politics, particularly in the 1970s and 80s. He was first elected Leader of Fine Gael in 1977, and served twice as Taoiseach between 1981 and 1987. Many tributes today have referred to his commitment to his vision for Ireland and his integrity in realising it.  He never allowed personal differences to get in the way of what he set out to achieve and was genuinely admired fondly by all in the Fine Gael Party.

Working first for Aer Lingus, and then as an economic consultant and academic, Garret Fitzgerald first entered politics in 1965 as a Senator and was later elected to the Dáil in 1969. He campaigned vigorously for Ireland’s entry to the EEC in the 1972 referendum, and became Minister for Foreign Affairs after the General Election of 1973, playing a strong role in the Ireland’s first presidency of the EEC.

He was a key figure in the Sunningdale Agreement negotiations, and later negotiated the Anglo Irish Agreement which gave the Irish Government a role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and marked a huge moment in our shared political history.  Determined to bring to bear his vision to modernise Ireland from the inside out, he will also be rememberedin history for his "Constitutional Crusade".   Looking to continental Europe rather than the United States for inspiration, he was greatly influenced from his interest in theology and progressive Catholicism.

He came to office at a very difficult time and made peace in Northern Ireland his life’s work.  It was not just a vision of peace that he had but a practical approach to achieve it.  He never deviated from what he set out to do and knew that he had to lead from the front.  In 1981, Garret Fitzgerald formed a minority government with Labour and led a crusade to make our country what he called a genuine republic, based on the principles of Tone and Davis, with which Northern Protestants would want to have a relationship.

Dr Garret Fitzgerald pioneered a brave and great campaign to modernise Ireland.  His government brought in contraception legislation in 1985 but an attempt under his leadership to bring in divorce failed (perhaps because Charles Haughey’s Fianna Fail were so opposed it.)  However, the Divorce Act was eventually passed into legislation in 1995.

Despite its achievements, the Fine Gael led government ran into difficulty with its coalition partners.  Some argue that Fitzgerald was too accommodating of Labour’s opinions on Fine Gael’s budget proposals that would have seen stringent cutbacks. Others that served in his cabinet will claim he was worried about the deflationary effect that stronger action would have had.  In 1987, the Labour Party members of the government withdrew, leaving a minority Fine Gael government in place.  An attempt was made to bring in the cutbacks that Labour had blocked but shortly after Labour’s withdrawal, Fianna Fáil returned to power.
Garret Fitzgerald resigned as Leader of Fine Gael in 1987. Many believe that he had not run his political course and still had a huge contribution to make as Leader.

However, he continued to be involved in politics, campaigning passionately for the Nice and Lisbon Treaties and in this year’s General Election, he made frequent television appearances and was at Dublin’s main election count centre at the RDS for the count.

Since his retirement from politics 20 years ago, he remained the quintessential public servant, devoting his time to analysing what was going on in Ireland’s political and economic spheres.  In particular, he was extremely critical of how the Fianna Fáil led government were handling the Irish economy.   He also served as Chancellor of the National University of Ireland for twelve years.

For 57 years, he contributed his ideas and opinions on politics and economics through his columns in the Irish Times newspaper.  It is difficult to think of any other country whose former Prime Minister would provide such insights.

Dr Garret Fitzgerald was something of a "father figure" to the political world in Ireland, encouraging scores of women and young people to enter politics.  He formed Young Fine Gael in 1977 and many Fine Gael activists will assert that they became involved in politics because of his fantastic encouragement and support. We will miss him.

Garret Fitzgerald did much to change Irish views about Northern Ireland, about ourselves and Ireland’s place in the world.  Ultimately, Dr Garret Fitzgerald tried to be a step ahead of public opinion and ultimately the success of his crusade is evident today.  He was committed to the pluralist, open, tolerant society that we are moving towards and witnessing this week with the first visit of a British monarch in over 100 years.
He both liberated and liberalised Irish politics and society.  He tried to bring a new meaning to what it meant to be a part of political life in Ireland. His country and his party are proud of a great statesman. RIP.


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