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Ronan Fanning: 1941-2017

Michael Lillis

Remarks by Michael Lillis at the funeral Mass of Ronan Fanning at St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, Dublin on January 20th, 2017

May I say that I was much moved by the marvellous words of tribute of Father Fachtna McCarthy.

I was introduced to Ronan Fanning in 1976 when I was an official at the Irish embassy to the United States by Garret and Joan FitzGerald, who were visiting Washington. Their daughter, Mary Fitzgerald, sent me a lovely message the day Ronan died: “He was such good company. I can hear so vividly his voice chuckling at some interchange with my mother.” I too remember, like Mary, Joan repeatedly over the years insisting: “Listen to Ronan, Garret!”

Ronan and I became friends and there scarcely passed a day since then when we were not in touch with each other. The world of academic historians was foreign to me but I hugely enjoyed the discoveries and conclusions of his Stakhanovite researches and shared with Virginia in her delight at  his professional triumphs. I also revelled in his apparent complete mastery of the dark arts of academic politics. But Ronan’s contributions to his country were wider and in some cases even more significant than the unsurpassed legacy of those researches. Though he would be outraged, the time has come to mention one or two of these instances.

At that time in Washington I was, under the enthusiastic guidance of the minister for foreign affairs, Garret FitzGerald, and of Seán Donlon in Iveagh House, working closely with John Hume and Speaker O’Neill, Senator Kennedy, Senator Moynihan and Hugh Carey, governor of the state of New York and their chiefs of staff on what became President Carter’s initiative on Northern Ireland of August 1977. Every US administration had, since the foundation of the Irish state, meticulously gone along with Britain’s wishes that the White House and the State Department would never take a position independent of Britain on Northern Ireland; in fact would never take a position. This of course gave London carte blanche while the situation in Northern Ireland continued to fester. Famously, in 1941, President Roosevelt had angrily pulled the tablecloth and the dishes off the table when Frank Aiken had tried to explain our concerns to him in the White House. Hume’s project in 1976 to break this impermeable barrier led to a bruising negotiation over several months, with the British embassy and government, doggedly supported by the State Department, bitterly resisting the idea that the US might take a genuinely independent role. Prime minister Jim Callaghan intervened several times with President Carter to stop this development. Ronan was a visiting Fulbright professor at Georgetown University – where by the way he formed an important   relationship with Henry Kissinger. He immediately understood the enormous significance of Hume’s project. He had an unerring grasp of, and a relish for, the power plays of high politics. I introduced him to the team I was working with, the Four Horsemen and their senior advisers, and to Bob Hunter, the brilliant deputy head of the National Security Council, and he became a regular and valued contributor to our strategising sessions.

In the event, Hume’s project prevailed in the form of a careful but historic announcement of independent American economic support ‑ if a power-sharing administration could be formed in Northern Ireland. Thenceforth the British could not prevent the US from being involved. Without this vital breakthrough, the long peace process might not have happened. Certainly it would not have happened with such international authority. It was a key factor in delivering both the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, through President Reagan’s intervention with Mrs Thatcher, and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, through President Clinton’s enormous support, which by then Tony Blair with Bertie Ahern welcomed and encouraged. Ronan, ever discreet, typically never claimed a role in these matters. But I can attest to it.  His contribution was important and it should be honoured.

Tip O Neill later proudly described the operation as being even more effective than any by the renowned Israeli lobby. Ronan often recalled that Tip would occasionally come by my house during those planning sessions and walk straight into my kitchen, where he would grab a  giant fistful of Cuban cigars: in those days I could, clad in my diplomatic immunity, circumvent the famous and rather foolish American embargo on Cuba by getting a supply of tabacos through our mission to the United Nations in New York. The notorious embargo did perhaps serve one useful purpose after all.

You all know that Ronan was among our most distinguished historians of the last hundred years. For me, a non-historian but a sometime practitioner for our side in dealing with Anglo-Irish relations, he was simply the most important.  His Fatal Path is a masterpiece, not alone of history and literature, but of clear-sighted wisdom. It explains with dazzling clarity why the Rising and the War of Independence were so important, but crucially it also underlines another reality. The wizard Lloyd George, a Liberal, was constantly looking over his shoulder to ensure that the only concern of his hard-line and threatening Tory allies, that is protecting the unionist cause, would take precedence over all other Irish issues. Bonar Law, Carson and Craig were his three Brexiteers. This meant, as Ronan explained ‑ sometimes to the astonishment of the patriots of this generation - that the struggles of nationalist Ireland   always came much further down the British agenda, subsidiary to the more intense dramas of jockeying for domination within the British cabinet. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Those who represent us in the imminent negotiations over Brexit could do a lot worse than take Ronan’s incomparable book with them to London, or Brussels or Valetta. If nothing else they would have an absorbing and instructive read. Professor Joe Lee, in a magisterial review three years ago, registered Ronan’s “surpassing skill, comparable to the most subtle exegeses of even such masters of the political historian’s craft as Nicholas Mansergh or Maurice Cowling, indeed surpassing both in literary style”.

Ronan was a constant, influential, and fully-informed adviser to Garret FitzGerald during the labyrinthine negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, following the complete breakdown of communications between the two governments by 1982. Again he never once claimed a role here. Lord Armstrong , secretary to Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet and the lead British negotiator at that time, sent me a message on the day Ronan died: “I am sorry to hear about Ronan Fanning’s death. I met him several times, and liked and respected him … He very kindly sent me a copy of his biography of de Valera, which I read with great interest and approval. He was a good historian and a wise man. I am not surprised that Garret FitzGerald valued his advice.”

John Hume consulted Ronan regularly as the peace process developed . I vividly remember that in August 1993 John showed him, at the funeral of Liam Hourican, our beloved and brilliant friend, the formula he was working on with Gerry Adams to define Irish unity. I never sensed such an electric reaction on Ronan’s part.

For more than ten years Ronan and I worked on research in four continents on the life of Eliza Lynch, the national heroine of Paraguay, who was born in Charleville in 1833. In the  war between Paraguay on the one hand and its neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, from 1867 to 1870, well over 95 per cent of the male population of Paraguay died, and more than half of its women and girls, a genocidal catastrophe, but one which was tragically instigated by Eliza’s lover, the Paraguayan dictator. Our collaboration was regularly punctuated by fierce disagreements over interpretation and by even more memorable well-lubricated  reconciliations.  Our book, The Lives of Eliza Lynch, was criticised in some revanchist Brazilian quarters for a form of “revisionism” no less. It was translated into Spanish and Portuguese and the distinguished director Alan Gilsenan made a wonderful docu-drama film of it, supported by our dear friend Conor McEnroy, one of the most gifted and astonishing sons of Wicklow, now Ireland’s honorary consul in Asunción. The newspaper of record of Paraguay, ABC Color, had several glowing tributes to Ronan in its edition on Thursday. It was a matter of deep satisfaction to Ronan that his son Tim is today the leading published expert on the remarkable role of the Irish in the revolutionary wars of the nineteenth century throughout the region.

Ronan Fanning was simply a man of great heart. That heart brimmed with love for his unforgettable darling Virginia , for his splendid brothers Adrian and Paul and for his three adored children, Judith, Gareth and Tim. For myself, he was simply my best friend.

1/2/2017

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