Name: Garret Fitzgerald
Party: Fine Gael
Terms served: June ’81-March’82, December ’82-March ’87,
We Irish tend to view our politicians with the mixture of pity, loathing and disgust normally reserved for the kind of people who have to go door to door whenever they move to a new neighbourhood. A big exception to that rule is Garret Fitzgerald. We Irish love us some Garret Fitzgerald. To this day he’s remembered fondly as a man of principle, integrity and humanity and also because in his later years he bore a passing resemblance to Tom Baker.
Not just a politician, Fitzgerald was also one of our foremost men of letters, writing for The Economist and the Irish Times where he was a contributor for almost sixty years. And a great Taoiseach right? Riiiiiiight?
Okay, so a little background. Remember that crazy motherthunderer Liam Cosgrave’s rant about “mongrel foxes”? Garret was one of them, and was considered part of Fine Gael’s liberal wing. Like Cosgrave, Fitzgerald had serious political pedigree from the pro-treaty side of the civil war (his dad fought in the Easter Rising and was later our first minister for External Affairs). Unlike Cosgrave, however, Fitzgerald wasn’t filled with a hatred for anti-treaty republicans so fiery that it could blacken the grass in the fields. Garret was very much a live and let live kind of guy. He came from a Catholic father and a Protestant mother and throughout his life he had a vision for Ireland where all its various traditions felt equally welcome and cherished. This is probably why he is so well remembered now. The Ireland Fitzgerald stood for; secular, progressive and inclusive is very much in, whereas the narrow, rigidly Catholic, comely-maidens-dancing-at-the-crossroads Ireland boosted by DeValera and his successors has almost totally fallen out of favour.
Despite being considered a vulpine of dubious legitimacy by Cosgrave, after Fine Gael/Labour’s election victory in 1973, Fitzgerald was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs because he spoke French and ate weird cheeses and the like. Fitzgerald had actually wanted to be appointed Minister for Finance but Cosgrave obviously wasn’t going to trust him with such an important position. Ironically, however, this turned out to be the biggest dodged bullet of Fitzgerald’s career. If you’ve read the Liam Cosgrave entry you know how his tenure as Taoiseach ended; mass unemployment and emigration and a marginal income tax of 77%.
Cosgrave resigned as leader of Fine Gael and Fitzgerald took over, determined to turn that two-bit operation into a three-bit operation. As party leader he was a resounding success, modernising the party machine and greatly expanding its appeal and popularity and by the time the 1981 general election rolled around Fine Gael was fit, ready and hungry for Fianna Fáil blood. Garret Fitzgerald became Taoiseach of yet another Fine Gael-Labour Coalition and was all set to kick social inequality’s ass and chew bubble-gum his complete absence of bubblegum notwithstanding. So what happened?
Firstly, bad luck. Fitzgerald’s tenure coincided with the H-block protests, where IRA prisoners in the North went on hunger strike to protest the fact that they were no longer afforded the status of political prisoners. The strikers had significant support in the Republic (especially once the prisoners started dying off one by one) but Fitzgerald was noticeably unsympathetic to their situation and the militant republican cause in general, which created a rift between him and the Irish public. On top of that, the economy was absolutely abysmal and the Fine Gael/Labour coalition reacted with harsh austerity measures and OH MY GOD NOTHING EVER CHANGES TIME IS A FLAT CIRCLE LIFE IS MEANGINGLESS THE WHEEL JUST KEEPS ON TURNING AND TURNING AND TURNING AND TURNING…
Sorry. Brief moment of existential panic. Comes with the territory.
Oh, and Fitzgerald had another problem. His greatest political rival was a shark in a man costume.
Consider this an after-the-fact addition to Haughey’s “Con” column:
So here’s the scene; It’s January 1982. FitzGerald’s government has proposed a really harsh budget. Some of the Independent TD’s who are part of Fitzgerald’s coalition loudly declare that Up With This They Will Not Put and the budget doesn’t pass. A Taoiseach who can’t pass a budget is a Taoiseach who’s lost the support of the Dáil. Under these circumstances the Taoiseach is supposed to go to the President who thanks him tearfully for giving him something to do. The Taoiseach then tells the President that he no longer has the support of the Dáil and asks the President to dissolve the government. The President then has two choices.
- He can be dead sound, and dissolve the government. There’s an election and a new government is formed. Maybe the opposition takes over, maybe the current Taoiseach returns to power with a larger majority. You don’t know, but at least the Taoiseach has the opportunity to take his case to the electorate.
- He can be a right bollocks and refuse the Taoiseach a dissolution. He can dance and cackle evilly and say “You thought I was powerless! But who has the power now, bitch?!”. He can then proceed to lick the Taoiseach’s tears from his face. This means that the Taoiseach has no choice but to resign and the Dáil itself chooses his successor (and considering that he’s lost the support of the Dáil, it almost certainly won’t be him). It’s a massive humiliation to the Taoiseach and a real dick move which is why no President has ever chosen option 2.*
Now the president at the time was Patrick Hillary, who was a Fianna Fáiler. Upon arriving at Áras an Uachtaráin (the presidential residence) Fitzgerald learned that Charles Haughey and other prominent Fianna Fáilers had frantically been trying to ring Hillary to convince him to refuse Fitzgerald’s request for a dissolution, thereby allowing Haughey to become Taoiseach without all that tedious “getting democratically elected by the people” malarkey. Hillary, to his eternal credit, had refused to even take these calls which resulted in Haughey threatening Hillary’s army aide-de-camp that if he didn’t put him through Haughey would ensure he never soldiered in this town again. Fitzgerald asked for a dissolution and Hillary granted it, thereby proving himself to be dead sound. Hillary also took steps to ensure that nobody ever fucked with the career of the young army officer who’d just been doing his damn job.
In a just world this would be where Fitzgerald won re-election and exiled Charles Haughey to his island (which had somehow mysteriously become infested with thousands upon thousands of poisonous snakes) but ‘twas not to be. Fitzgerald lost (barely) and Haughey began his second tenure as Taoiseach.
This go round Haughey lasted a mere six months and after another election in November FitzGerald was Taoiseach again (there were, no lie, THREE general elections in the span of eighteen months during this time. Governments were changing so fast it could set off a seizure). Back in power Fitzgerald tried again to grapple with the economic mess that had been dragging on since…forever pretty much. Fitzgerald was lucky in that his party’s plucky sidekick was again the Labour party under Dick Spring. Spring and Fitzgerald liked and respected each other and they were able to keep the government together despite the fact that Labour and Fine Gael were fundamentally at odds in many respects, with Fine Gael trying to turn the country’s finances around while Labour was fighting to stop the nation’s already threadbare social safety net getting anymore frayed. The best that can be said is that the economy didn’t get much worse (although it certainly didn’t get any better).
Fitzgerald also tried to liberalise Irish society by bringing in the first divorce referendum which was defeated thanks to the opposition of the Catholic Church and Charles Haughey.
Charles Haughey campaigned to protect the sanctity of marriage. The man who carried on an extra-marital affair for almost thirty years. That happened. That was an event that occurred.
Stymied by the unending economic crisis and the unbending conservatism of the Irish people, Fitzgerald’s tenure as Taoiseach limped to a close with the 1987 election which saw Fine Gael trounced and Charles Haughey (YES! YES! HIM AGAIN! HIM AGAIN, AGAIN!) returned to power for his third and final tenure as Taoiseach.
So, considering Fitzgerald’s lasting achievements in office could be summed up with a big goose egg, why is he so popular? Well, because he was a decent, learned, thoroughly honourable man who tried as Taoiseach to make his country a better place. Did he succeed? No. But he tried, and God loves a trier. So do the Irish people.
- Established the New Ireland Forum to try and find a peaceful solution to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Nice idea. Didn’t work. Least he tried. Nice bloke. Garret Fitzgerald.
- Once attended a meeting of the Bilderberg group. Possibly a lizard.
*There has been one instance where a new Taoiseach was appointed without a general election being called. This was when Albert Reynolds resigned and the Dáil elected John Bruton to replace him in 1994. The important distinction is that Reynolds resigned because of the Harry Whelahan/Father Brendan Smythe clusterbollocks and not because he was refused a dissolution.