A Character Evaluation of Garret FitzGerald
Quality 1: He is very bright
Flaw: He is intolerably self-righteous. Almost all of his pronouncements are founded in moral terms and he frequently exudes an aura of prigishness, which at times can be insufferable. His attitude to Charles Haughey has been particularly obnoxious, believing him to be his (Garret's) moral inferior - his Dáil speech on the nomination of Haughey was inexcusable, particularly his references to the latter's "flawed pedigree" and to "matters which cannot be mentioned even in this House".
Quality 2: Basically he is honest
Flaw: He overdoes the honest bit and basically the honesty is only "basically". Take for instance the circumstances of the nomination of Dick Burke as Ireland's EEC commissioner last March. Garret was informed of the appointment and of Burke's acceptance of it at least 36 hours before it became publicly known. In fact he had agreed to welcome the appointment. But when the news of the appointment broke earlier than expected and, embarrassingly, just before a meeting of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party, Garret affected to know nothing about it. He asked Maurice Manning to have reports of the appointment checked out and he carefully avoided telling his colleagues that he had known about it since the previous Monday night. Of course he forgot about the commitment to welcome the appointment. Had Haughey been guilty of such tricky behaviour, FitzGerald would have showered him with moral indignation from a height.
Quality 3: He is genuinely patriotic - his sense of public duty is considerable and genuine. That sense was very much part of his personality long before he entered politics, when he participated on various bodies in preparation of the Second Programme for Economic Expansion, in the sixties, for example. He could have made a lot of money in economic consultancy but forsook that for public office and his personal finances have been in a perennial mess.
Flaw: He is essentially an elitist. He believes that he knows best what to do with the country and that the public shouldn't be let in too much on what it is all about. His conduct of politics and election campaigns have been extraordinary from that perspective since he took over. He conducted market research to discover what people would wear and then more or less told them what he thought they wanted to hear on economic and social policy. In fact there was no economic and social policy in the four years after he took over as leader of Fine Gael. Then policy was quickly devised in secret - even vis-a-vis his own frontbench and presented as an election package, designed to win the maximum number of votes. In the recent campaign he steadfastly refused to become specific about policy at all and effectively asked for - and got - a blank cheque from the electorate. His refusal to seek a mandate for what he believed in and, indeed, for those measures that are needed to rectify the problems in the economy, gravely weakens his position as Taoiseach.
Quality 4: He is genuinely committed to solving the Northern problem and is willing to contemplate quite radical measures in terms of southern politics to achieve a solution. Hence his constitutional crusade and his declared commitment to rid the southern state of its sectarian elements. There is no other politician prominent in public life who shares that commitment or who has the courage to go all the way with him on it.
Flaw: Although he claims to be committed to ridding southern society of its sectarian elements and creating here a pluralist Ireland, he allowed himself to be hijacked on the abortion amendment, sponsored largely by a highly sectarian element in Irish society. He has refused to give any commitments to repeal what he himself characterises as the sectarian Family Planning Act, he does likewise on the constitutional prohibition on divorce.
Quality 5: He is also personally committed to the alleviation of poverty. It was his personal ambition to achieve a radical redistribution of wealth through political action. He believes, for instance, in a wealth tax and, more significantly, in a very hefty inheritance and gifts tax, believing that the perpetuation of inequality comes through inheritance.
Flaw: In spite of his declared commitments on poverty, notably a speech he made in Kilkenny in November 1981, he essentially believes that any redistribution of wealth can come only by generating more wealth. He will not steel himself to the redistribution of existing wealth. Essentially he believes that politics can conciliate between opposing interests - e.g. that it is possible to remedy poverty without radically interfering with any but a tiny vested interest.
Quality 6: He is instinctively open and candid - quite unlike Charles Haughey in that respect. He is by far the most indiscreet member of his own cabinet. He simply fails to recognise why there must be such secrecy attached to public life.
Flaw: In spite of rhetorical flourishes, he basically does not believe that there is any serious structural defect in the public service or even Parliament. He is at best half-hearted about John Bruton's proposals for Dail reform and has given very little attention to the structural problems in the public service and indeed in public expenditure.
Quality 7: Personally, he is very generous. Here this reporter must acknowledge of a personal bias. Garret has always been very helpful journalistically - he wrote extensively for Nusight magazine in 1969 and 1970 and devoted a great deal of time to attempting to ensure its survival (incidentally, Charlie Haughey also attempted to assist its survival).
Flaw: His judgement can be appallingly silly at times. For instance his justification of the VAT on children's shoes on the grounds that some women's feet, being small, would otherwise be exempted. His estimation of people can also be hopelessly wrong. He believed, for instance, that Paddy Cooney was a liberal one time.