ON THIS DAY thirty-two years ago Garret Fitzgerald became Taoiseach for the first time heading a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Running on the slogan ‘We’ll put it right’ Fitzgerald preached his message of rejuvenating the Irish economy, establishing a more pluralist society and ending violence in Northern Ireland.
This would be the first of Fitzgerald’s two terms as Taoiseach. Ireland throughout his time in power faced huge economic, social and political challenges. Yet despite this when we tend to think about the politics of the ’80s we focus on Charles Haughey. We can all too easily forget that Fitzgerald equally played a role in the progression and mismanagement of the country during that turbulent decade. On this anniversary I think it is appropriate to pause and ask the question what is the legacy of the Fitzgerald era?
A series of sensible revenue raisers introduced
One of the first challenges facing Fitzgerald on becoming was the dire economic situation facing the country. Since 1977 borrowing had risen from 9 per cent of GNP to 16 per cent in 1981. To make matters worse, had current spending gone on unabated, within a year borrowing would have soared to an eye-watering 20 per cent. These staggering levels of borrowing led to a viscous circle of huge tax rises and rampant inflation that would constrain the Irish economy for the next seven years.
To his credit, Fitzgerald’s government did manage to stabilise borrowing and bring down inflation. His government introduced a series of sensible revenue raisers like the National Lottery. Yet, haunted by his memories of the 1950s, he feared making the further cuts that were necessary to bring the public finances back into line. This hesitancy left the deficit stabilised but not largely reduced, with borrowing still at a high of 13 per cent of GNP when he left office.
Fitzgerald’s failure to curb public spending delivered sizeable electoral gains for the Progressive Democrats and allowed his successor, Charles Haughey, to claim the mantle of economic saviour. While Haughey’s government did slash the deficit and plant the roots of the Celtic Tiger it should be remembered that it was Fitzgerald, and not Alan Dukes, who made the first pledge that Fine Gael would support the Fianna Fáil government should they pursue a course of fiscal consolidation.
Fitzgerald never diverted from seeking to solve the Troubles peacefully
Where Fitzgerald really did chart a new course in Irish politics was in his approach to Northern Ireland. Through launching his ‘constitutional crusade’ he established the New Ireland Forum which attempted to develop a coherent agenda for constitutional nationalism at a time when support for more militant forms of republicanism was increasing in the aftermath of the Hunger Strikes. His greatest achievement in this regard was signing the Anglo-Irish agreement which, for the first time, formally gave the Irish government a role in Northern Ireland affairs. Despite sizeable opposition, Fitzgerald never diverted from this path of seeking to solve the Troubles by improving relations with the British government.
Outside of Northern Ireland this crusade went into domestic areas, as he attempted to introduce divorce and liberalise laws surrounding contraception. While these issues would be seen as relatively minor by today’s standards they polarised the nation at the time. Fitzgerald failed to get through a constitutional amendment to remove the prohibition on divorce. This failure highlighted the general problem with his constitutional crusade, as little time was spent articulating why these changes were necessary. The lack of clarity from the Fine Gael-Labour coalition allowed their opponents to define the constitutional crusade before they could. What had the potential to be Fitzgerald’s lasting legacy is now regarded as a missed opportunity.
How should we remember Garret the Good?
So, how should we view the legacy of the man Fine Gael called ‘Garret the good?’ We should remember a man who went into politics for all the right reasons. The desire to improve and change his country is what Fitzgerald sought to do. How successful he was in achieving those objectives is debatable. But what cannot be denied is that underneath the harmless academic persona was a tough politician who knew how to count numbers in an election and win an argument.
He came to power with a grand vision but had terrible blind spots. Many times throughout his period in office he failed to carry the general public along with him. Despite these flaws Fitzgerald undoubtedly left his mark on Irish society. Like Charles Haughey, his period in government in many ways shaped the Ireland we live in today.
In today’s poll-driven political culture we sometimes forget that to fail sometimes, you at least have to try. While Fitzgerald did certainly have failures, he also had the courage to do what he thought was right. Perhaps that is the most fitting legacy for his contribution to Irish politics.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for TheJournal.ie click here.