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The Good Statesman

Michael Lillis

“Inevitably most politicians have mixed motivations; few are wholly inspired by either vanity or self-interest, and few, if any, are wholly free of such flaws. And many may not even be conscious of their own mixed motivations, or at any rate may not have been endowed with that relatively rare quality ‑ intellectual honesty ‑ which would enable them to see themselves, and their underlying motivation, in objective terms.”

(From “General Reflections on Politics” in Reflections on the Irish State, Dublin 2002)

This sage if somewhat awkwardly expressed observation epitomised much of what Garret FitzGerald represented in the public life of his country: a commitment to intellectual rigour, to public morality, to idealism and to stark realism that has not been matched in any other individual in independent Ireland. No shrinking violet, he several times acknowledged the role that ambition had played in his own desire to enter and to succeed in politics and why he chose Fine Gael over Labour, even though ideologically his sympathies would have suggested the latter. He joined Fine Gael to change that party and to take it into power as the main party of government and thus to change the country.

Another quote from the same essay brings out the combination of idealism and realism that characterised his career:

... realistically, to do “the right thing” on every occasion, however unimportant this action may be with some segments of the working population, would be to condemn oneself to a short and consequently worthless and unproductive, political career. On the other hand, to fall into the trap of perpetually seeking to be popular would be equally worthless and unproductive, a complete waste of one’s life.

And it was that “rare quality – intellectual honesty” – about himself, about Ireland and about the issues that confronted the world, that most consistently defined his quite unique contribution to the national and international debate over several generations.

During twenty years of service in the Department of Foreign Affairs, ending in 1989, I had been privileged – or perhaps condemned ‑ to contribute to drafts of speeches for several politicians, including a number of Irish ministers, several US members of Congress, EU commissioners, some SDLP politicians and on one occasion a US president, Jimmy Carter. To have acquired a modest reputation as a speechwriter is not an enviable achievement: you end up being persecuted by demands for drafts on subjects you know or care little about and in some cases from people you don’t necessarily admire. But you do acquire a feel for speeches and the extent to which they were originally drafted by persons other than the speaker ‑ or you think you do (for example, my guess is that the crucial parts of the remarkable speech of Queen Elizabeth II in Dublin Castle were largely drafted by herself, while the rousing words of President Obama in College Green were for the most part the product of a talented committee). And, as you go along, you deliberately try to adopt the personal style and what you understand of the personal philosophy of the eventual orator ‑ to the extent that your skills permit. After some practice this not very glorious art often becomes surprisingly easy to carry off.

Garret FitzGerald was in this regard consistently the most difficult politician I encountered. Draft after draft would come back covered with vigorously scrawled comments ‑ most of them almost illegible, a few uncharacteristically verging on the intemperate. After suffering these reverses over a period I made a discovery. FitzGerald’s primary objective was not that of all the other political “clients” I had tried to serve in this way. He wanted to explain, to expound, rather than simply persuade. He needed to be quite sure that he had set out for his own intellectual conviction all the key aspects of the issue he was addressing (in my case this was mainly, but not always, concerned with Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations) as well as the process of reasoning that led to his and to the Government’s decisions, actions or proposals. We then hit on the device of meeting before I tried to draft anything and on these occasions I would note in great detail all his requirements as to structure and content. He sometimes said this helped him think his way again through the issues themselves. In effect it virtually amounted to his drafting those speeches himself. And the “style” in this case reflected his fundamentally didactic purpose: dense, long sentences groaning under pyramids of subordinate clauses which occasionally exasperated or wearied the audience or the reader, with his insistence on expounding all the multiple layers of his analysis and conclusions. No concessions were made to accessibility or convenience. The objective was that intellectual honesty, that “rare quality” ‑ very rare indeed in the calculations of those political speechwriters I have come across, whose obsessions are more commonly with the concoction of sound bites and spin. While in recent years his columns in The Irish Times seemed to me to have become somewhat more fluent and accessible, the objective never changed from a determination to expound the truth, however uncomfortable, however complex.

This is not to suggest that Garret FitzGerald lacked the skills of persuasion. He had them in spades. I was hugely impressed when, as a junior official in New York in the seventies, I “carried his bag” to meetings of boards of US corporations and the offices of wizened Wall Street gurus and witnessed his winning them over with the warmest charm, infectious good humour, energy and sparkling wit. His ability to persuade his EU ministerial and heads of government colleagues was legendary, as in his achievement of the Lome Convention in 1975 and his successful confrontation with President Giscard d’Estaing’s plans to make an executive decision-making institution of the European Council in 1974 and ’75 ‑ he is most painfully missed today.

In his most important achievement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, he doggedly but under the strictest intellectual ethical discipline persuaded the most pro-unionist and least pro-Irish British prime minister of the twentieth century to overcome her formidable reluctance to make the least political concession to Irish nationalists ( whose “alienation” was for her merely a term of Marxist rhetoric) and to give a substantial role to the Irish government in the processes of government of Northern Ireland (“In! In! In!” as one sour loyalist comment of the time had it). She subsequently turned against the agreement, one of the key achievements of her premiership, but one imagines that she might have taken a different view in the light of the successful visit to Ireland of her queen ‑ whose origins lie in that historic accord. Yet withal, Garret FitzGerald never in my fairly extensive experience of his activities in the seventies and eighties either overstated his case in those campaigns of persuasion or overstated his achievements afterwards, unlike the disastrous examples of others, such as the ludicrous and destructive overselling of a reference to the “totality of relationships” in an Anglo-Irish communiqué in December 1980. If anything, my only cavil would be that – typically ‑ he tended to undersell the shorter and long-term significance of the 1985 Agreement because of his own central role in it.

The intellectual debate in Irish politics during two decades was dominated by two prominent figures, Conor Cruise O Brien and Garret FitzGerald. Dr O’Brien was a formidable polemicist with a considerable literary culture but a narrow range of interests in Irish government policy matters ‑ in effect almost exclusively the Northern Ireland crisis. His positions on this great issue evolved through a series of vicissitudes of circumstance, from running an international anti-partition campaign in the 1950s to strenuously opposing John Hume and the peace process, and eventually supporting the unionist interest. Otherwise he made notable contributions to international literary and historical scholarship. In many of his ventures, including his roles in the United Nations, he seemed to relish the role of enfant terrible.

Dr FitzGerald was quite different. As his autobiography and other writings testify, the range of his passionate active curiosity and interests spanned the entire agenda of the Irish government, the EU and world affairs. Whether in government, in opposition or in retirement, he provided a substantial and constantly updated original input into debates on education, social welfare, transport, trade, EU and world affairs, the Irish language, finance, law and justice, electoral reform, demographics and the constitution. And of course statistics. Unlike Dr O Brien, he disclaimed any authority to deal with “the crucial subject of the arts and literature: in respect of such sectors of activity I have no competence and could add nothing of value”. Perhaps this difference between them could explain some of the other differences between their careers and their styles of communication. Garret FitzGerald’s was decidedly non-literary, rather fact-focused, objective rather than subjective, comprehensive and ever evocative of his own voracious intellectual curiosity.

This is not to say that Garrett FitzGerald avoided the cultural area. His knowledge of Irish and ability to speak the language were considerable and his scholarly investigations of its demographic and geographic survival patterns in the nineteenth century were labours of love ‑ supplemented by a study of the national school system in the same century that he was actively engaged in up to his death. His French was impeccable and he was a scholar of French political history. He and his wife, Joan, were devoted students of modern theology and of biblical scholarship. In 1988 they came to lunch at my invitation at the Irish permanent representative’s residence in Geneva to meet Dr John Stewart Bell, originally from Belfast, and his wife, both world-leading quantum physics theorists at the European nuclear research organisation CERN. I fear I only dimly followed a brilliant and very learned discussion in which both FitzGeralds more than held their own. (Tragically Dr Bell died in 1990 just as, unknown to himself, he was nominated for a Nobel Prize.) I might add that I have benefited during many years from Garret FitzGerald’s advice to read Trollope’s Palliser novels on long airplane flights and otherwise: perhaps his instinctive fascination with the intricate and the political was indulged by these absorbing sagas of British and Irish life and power systems.

From early days he was concerned with the intellectual and ethical content of public debate in Ireland. His essay “Seeking a National Purpose” in Studies in winter 1964 is even today revealing and topical. He sought to weave into a single positive philosophy of life a range of valuable inherited strands of thought: the religious Christian inheritance with its contemporary emphasis on a balanced life and the ideals of a future life, socialist thought and liberal objectives, the rural tradition of that time and the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish traditions. The later and shrewder taoiseach might not have subscribed publicly to every item of the following but it is an instructive list:

The strong anti-cultural bias of a large part of the community which finds its reflection in even members of the teaching profession; the cramming and examination system; the pervasive emphasis on sport – for which the clergy through their influence in the secondary schools and in organizations like the G.A.A. bear some responsibility ‑ all of these are formidable obstacles to overcome. How can we pretend to equal, much less to lead other countries if we cannot eradicate the anti-intellectual, anti-cultural attitude of mind that is so common in our country?

He was also a serious student of history, particularly Irish, Anglo-Irish and European history and his reflections on the historic background of any topic he broached, from local government to taxation, from marital and related customs and laws to the economics of various transport systems, almost always included his assessment of the factors from the past that continued to influence or even bedevil that issue now. And he frequently brought out surprising complexities which he believed to have been more profound in their impact than the more obvious superficially observed background. A fascinating example is his writing on the 1916 Rising, which is vastly more positive than some so-called revisionist opinion. (Candour of course compels me to observe that both his mother and his father were present in the GPO.) Nevertheless his argument, once he has established the desirability of national independence both then and more recently, focuses on the shift that had recently taken place in the cash transfers between Britain and Ireland, moving from net transfers to Britain up to the end of the nineteenth century to the reverse in the early years of the twentieth and he argues that it was essential, given the continuing rising trend of subsidisation of social expenditure in Britain, that national independence have been achieved in the second decade of the twentieth century as otherwise a people habituated over later decades to higher levels of social welfare might have hesitated to break that link of dependence. He gives the example of the first, hugely successful, referendum on joining the EEC, where the argument of substantial economic benefits trumped the concerns about possible loss of sovereignty (cf the essay “Irish Independence: Rationale and Timing in Reflections on the Irish State”). He frequently reminded me when I was an official and we were considering issues like changes to the irredentist articles in the constitution that the “Irish people are horse-traders: they need to be persuaded that they are getting a good deal”. I took that to be a compliment to the Irish people.

Garret FitzGerald’s interest in Northern Ireland was of course always a priority. But from his earliest writings it was focused more on the need to work for a solution rather than on proving the impossibility of any solution. Unlike successive Irish governments from 1922 to 1969 which had systematically ignored them, he was concerned more with righting the injustices that the unionists, with the unspoken support of London, systematically visited on the Catholic nationalist minority rather than on bombastic anti-partitionist rhetoric. He also argued for the creation of a new legal and social framework in the South which would make our society less alien to Northern Unionists. In the negotiation of the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974 he was the most active participant, shuttling tirelessly between the different parties and encouraging dialogue and compromise. When the Wilson government failed to instruct the British army to confront the loyalist strike, thus betraying and bringing down the power-sharing structures of the agreement itself, the so-called unionist veto of any type of proposal whatever, even without an “Irish dimension”, was fatally and shamefully reinforced. The Provisional IRA’s argument that the British would never listen to anything except violence seemed validated and they were undoubtedly further encouraged in prosecuting their vicious “long war”. Eight years would pass before there was another Irish-British effort to move towards a solution, eight years dominated by hunger strikes, killings by IRA and loyalist terrorists, unionist intransigence, paralysis in London and intermittent despair or jingoism in Dublin.

This landscape was transformed by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The agreement forced a gradual but fundamental rethink, first among the Official Unionists and finally on the part of Dr Paisley and the DUP. Their veto had been removed by the very leader they had most trusted, Mrs Thatcher, and they had to come to terms with a shared future. I should add that Garret FitzGerald enormously regretted the fact that the Unionist leaders could not be briefed but the British as well as ourselves took the wise view that this would have torpedoed the process. On our side we kept John Hume briefed confidentially and he respected this confidence until the end, when just before Hillsborough three of his colleagues were briefed by Garret FitzGerald, Dick Spring and Peter Barry. Between Garret FitzGerald and Hume there existed the highest degree of trust and mutual esteem. The Provisional IRA were also taken aback by both the convulsed unionist and the somewhat triumphalist nationalist reactions to the agreement, though at first they treated it as a non-event, hiding behind Mr Haughey’s opposition to it in the Dáil, which was itself exceptionally directly challenged by the SDLP. But soon after the government changed in Dublin in 1987 the Fianna Fáil administration began to work the mechanisms of the agreement. Later John Hume started his tentative dialogue with Gerry Adams, which developed over several years within the framework of Hume’s new definitions of Irish unity and of the exercise of sovereignty.

In 1989 I retired from government service and in 1990 the late Mary Holland, then the most incisive journalist covering the Northern Ireland crisis in either country, asked me to meet Gerry Adams at her home confidentially to help elucidate some issues concerning the British government’s likely concerns and methods of negotiation based on my experience. I approached Garret FitzGerald before agreeing to do so: I would not have gone along with Mary’s initiative had he not approved. It is important to underline that at this stage I was a private citizen and that I knew confidentially that John Hume was already in secret discussions with Mr Adams, though this was not known to the public. I duly met Gerry Adams over two days in Mary’s house. He asked many highly pertinent and intelligent questions (including about the Anglo-Irish Agreement) which confirmed that he was seriously considering some kind of move but also that the hermetic isolation of his organisation over many years had left it at that moment somewhat unprepared for negotiation with the British. Having made my outrage at the slaughter of innocent people that his organisation continued to carry out abundantly clear, I tried my best to be informative. I have no idea whether these discussions did any good but I was glad that I took part. Shortly afterwards I received a message from John Hume asking me to desist. I did so immediately and without hesitation. So far as my observation of Garret FitzGerald in these episodes is concerned, I recall that he had some understandable concerns about the Hume-Adams dialogue but that he had implicit confidence in John Hume’s sense of responsibility from the outset and backed his efforts strongly all the way.

I have strayed perhaps excessively in the field of Anglo-Irish relations but it was the area in which I had the privilege of working most closely with Garret FitzGerald both when he was minister for foreign affairs and when he was taoiseach. With the economic crisis of the 1980s Northern Ireland was, I believe, the most challenging issue of his political career. I was again in recent days reminded by the moving letter in The Irish Times of June 3rd of Rosemary O’Neill, daughter of the late speaker of the house Thomas P (“Tip”) O’Neill and herself a doughty ally of constitutional Irish nationalism, about the esteem in which her father held Garret FitzGerald and of how quickly and perfectly FitzGerald had grasped the strategy that we were elaborating in Washington in the 1970s with John Hume and the “Four Horsemen” of getting the US executive for the first time in American history to take a positive position on the Northern Ireland crisis (this led eventually to President Reagan’s pressure on Mrs Thatcher).

My work meant that I travelled fairly frequently with him and Joan and he would often extend an invitation to dinner. These affairs were always convivial but also intellectually stimulating occasions. In private I found him to be extraordinarily humble about himself, often disclaiming any expertise about matters on which he was much better informed than the rest of us. He listened to the opinions and concerns of literally every person, no matter how lowly he or she might feel themselves to be, once he was persuaded of that person’s good intentions, and always with an attitude of sincere respect and good will. The tribute paid on the morning of his death spontaneously by Peter Sutherland, his old attorney general, was the most moving and apt of all: “He was a man of great and generous heart.”


Michael Lillis was diplomatic adviser to the Taoiseach (1981), head of the Anglo-Irish Relations division of the Department of Foreign Affairs (1982-85), Irish head of the Anglo-Irish Agreement Secretariat, Maryfield, Belfast (1985-86), Ambassador to the UN in Geneva (1986-88), managing director for Latin America for GPA (1988-90) and for GE Capital Aviation (1990-96), board member VivaAeobus Airlines Mexico 2007 to date. His Scandal and Courage: the Lives of Eliza Lynch, co-authored with Ronan Fanning, was published in 2009.

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