Former Irish prime minister Garret FitzGerald, Ireland’s most popular elder statesman, who twice served as prime minister and played a crucial role in paving the way for peace in Northern Ireland, has died at the age of 85, his family said on Thursday.
Known universally as Garret and much loved for his dotty professor persona, the erudite economist played an important role in shaping modern Ireland.
His death, after a short illness, prompted tributes from around the world, including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.
ROLE IN PEACE
As prime minister in the 1980s, FitzGerald persuaded then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to give Dublin an official toehold in Northern Ireland, creating a channel for the two governments to overcome decades of mistrust, which led to an historic peace deal in 1998.
That groundwork was crowned in stunning fashion on the eve of FitzGerald’s death, when the British monarch delivered a landmark speech of reconciliation in Dublin.
Irish President Mary McAleese told the state broadcaster RTE: “While I am so desperately sorry that he did not get to any of the events this week, I’m so glad he lived long enough to see a time when Her Majesty the Queen came to Ireland and made so many wonderful gestures of reconciliation. He was utterly unique, one of nature’s political gentlemen ... He was the quintessential public servant.”
Ireland’s parliament suspended normal business so deputies could pay tribute to FitzGerald and the Irish tricolour flew at half-mast on all government buildings.
FitzGerald, whose mother was a Protestant from Northern Ireland, understood that community’s fear of “Rome Rule” and he strove to end the Catholic Church’s influence over the Irish Republic by liberalizing the sale of condoms and trying to introduce divorce.
Unafraid to take unpopular decisions, he pushed through tough spending cuts to tackle Ireland’s runaway national debt, but was punished for it in the polls.
He stepped down as leader of the center-right Fine Gael party in 1987 after it lost power that year. Although he retired from politics in 1992, he continued to play an active role in public life right up to his death.
As foreign minister in the 1970s, FitzGerald raised Ireland’s status in what was then known as European Economic Community with his innovative views, energy and fluency in French and campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in the second Irish referendum on a European charter in 2009.
Vocal about Ireland’s current financial problems, he wrote a weekly newspaper column and attended economic briefings in Dublin until shortly before his death.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, wearing a black tie as a mark of respect, recalled that FitzGerald often “went down side-alleys in terms of discussions and they could drift on for hours”.
“It’s a legacy that very few will ever match,” Kenny told RTE about FitzGerald’s career.