When Garret FitzGerald died last month, in the midst of the Queen of England’s trip to Dublin and points south, it was accompanied by what was, even by Irish standards, an excessive degree of exaggeration and distortion of the man’s true role in the defining event in recent Irish history, the Troubles in the North and more particularly how they ended.
The sheet had hardly been pulled over his head before his successor as Fine Gael leader and Coalition Taoiseach, Enda Kenny was proclaiming him as “a true patriot” whose “commitment to peace and reconciliation on the island and between Ireland and Britain had reached fruition” with Her Majesty’s Irish jaunt while his opposite number in Fianna Fail Micheẚl Martin, echoed him – minus the Queen bit – and praised FitzGerald as a “politician who made an immense and lasting contribution to peace and reconciliation on this island”.
To read and hear those as well as remarks from others – Martin McGuinness, who a few years ago might well have had someone shot for saying a kind word about FitzGerald, said the former Taoiseach had taken “great delight” in the progress of the Northern peace process – one could be forgiven for thinking that the peace process was nothing less than the outworking of all he had striven to achieve and teach on solving or at least putting aside the Northern conflict.
There’s no doubt that the way in which the Troubles have ended, with all shades of Irish Nationalism on both sides of the Border accepting the principle of consent, i.e. partition, is something that politicians of Garret FitzGerald’s ilk have long yearned for. That sort of endgame is what he and they were all about and he was never short of company under that tent. The real question is whether we would have got to where we are now if we had all followed Garret’s teachings on the North to the letter.
If there was one thing that defined his stance on the North it was an utter detestation of all things Irish Republican. It lay behind his famous, jaw-dropping denunciation of Charles Haughey when he was made Taoiseach in December 1979. Haughey was, in the eyes of Dublin Four – as FitzGerald’s political camp was less than fondly known in those days – responsible for the creation of the Provisional IRA and by extension had hands dripping with the innocent blood of the North’s dead.
His words in the Dail were: “Deputy Haughey presents himself here, seeking to be invested in office as the seventh in this line, but he comes with a flawed pedigree.” Remember that one of those seven earlier Taoisigh in whose footsteps Haughey intended to follow included Sean Lemass who was one of Collins’ Twelve Apostles, the band of IRA assassins who cold-bloodedly executed fourteen British secret agents, some shot dead in their beds, on Bloody Sunday, November 21st, 1920 – shootings which then led to the massacre at Croke Park – while Lemass’ predecessor was Eamon de Valera whose deviousness and dishonesty were probably responsible more than anything else for the Irish civil war. I would have thought that in the ‘flawed pedigree’ department those two gents could have shown Charlie a thing or two.
He was also the classic victim of his own propaganda. There’s little doubt in my mind that when he and his faithful minions in the Department of Foreign Affairs set out to cajole Margaret Thatcher into signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, he truly did believe that left alone Sinn Fein would have gobbled up the SDLP and all that was decent around them and having conquered the North, then made the whole island into an offshore Cuba from which to export revolution and the downfall of Christian civilization to the rest of Europe.
There was one incident during the hunger strikes of 1981 that stands out as symptomatic of the FitzGerald paranoia about the Provos. It happened one night when a bearded, hairy and doubtless very smelly tramp called at chez FitzGerald in South Dublin, knocked the door and was about to beg for money. His wife Joan FitzGerald answered the door and nearly fainted with fright. That night RTE announced that Gardai were investigating reports that members of the Provisional IRA had attempted to attack the Taoiseach’s family and Mrs FitzGerald was suffering from shock in the aftermath. In other words in the world inhabited by les FitzGeralds there was no distinction between the threat offered by one of Dublin’s indigent poor and an IRA terrorist.
The one thing that obsessed him for years was the fear that the British would talk to the Provos and come to some deal to withdraw, leaving Ireland at the mercy of bloodthirsty IRA gunmen and rampaging UVF bombers. His paranoia in this regard reached a peak during the extended IRA ceasefire of 1974-1975.
The IRA’s leaders and Garret FitzGerald did share one characteristic, loath though both would have been to admit it: they were both conned by the British into believing that the secret talks during that ceasefire were a preamble to withdrawal rather than what they really were, a largely successful effort to debilitate the IRA with a long cessation while preparing the ground for a deadly new security policy – criminalization – which came tantalizing close to finishing off the IRA for good.
So alarmed was FitzGerald by what he and his officials were picking up that he went as far as recruiting Henry Kissinger, then President Gerald Ford’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State – and the moral giant of his age – to intervene on his side against the British if it really came to the bit and the Brits did indeed start to board their ships in Belfast Lough.
Of course that never happened because the British never intended to do anything like that, not only because they were ideologically indisposed to such a thing but because they had happened upon a whizz of an idea which they thought could really bury the Provos for once and for all. What is astonishing about the episode is that there was an abundance of evidence at the time about the real British intentions but none of it was picked up by FitzGerald and his advisors. That’s the problem with idees fixes – you can’t get rid of them. Another characteristic he and the then IRA leadership shared, an inability to see what was in front of their nose.
So imagine that if instead of knocking on Charlie Haughey’s door in 1986/1987, Fr Alex Reid and Gerry Adams had called round to the Fitzgerald household to ask him if he would interested in talking about peace. The odds are that they would have been given the same reception as that unfortunate tramp back in 1981 and Ireland would still be living with the Troubles. And isn’t it ironic that the man who actually did agree to start talking to them, and by so doing launched the peace process, was the guy with the flawed pedigree? And along with it came a more convincing claim than Garret FitzGerald could ever stake to having made a contribution to peace and reconciliation on the island.