Garret's acceptance of inequality had an effect

The former taoiseach achieved the impossible by making Ireland more plural but was content with our inequality. By Vincent Browne

Garret Fitzgerald was primarily a wonderful citizen, a person who gave almost all of his adult life to the business of citizenship, not entirely for altruistic reasons but also because he got huge enjoyment and fulfilment from it. He was hugely influential as a citizen – he changed our minds on important issues and consolidated opinions on others. That, more than anything he actually did in politics, was his main contribution and it is how he will be missed.

Note: A retrospective on Garret Fitzgerald will be available in e-Book/PDF format on early next week.  

It was the Jesuit priest, Roland Burke Savage, the editor of the then influential (in the 1950s and 1960s) Jesuit journal Studies , who encouraged him to think about politics, to formulate and cohere his views on political matters.

Garret started to write on economic matters in the 1950s but then in direct response to Ronald Burke Savage he wrote an essay Seeking a National Purpose for the winter 1964 issue of the journal.

That essay set out his political views, views that hardly changed for the rest of his life.

He sought in that essay to devise a national purpose drawing on the disparate traditions of the community of the island of Ireland, notably the Christian tradition, informed by socialist and liberal insight. He urged the separation of church and State, a rejection of selfish individualism, "a true discernment of the corrupting poser of riches", a promotion of a sense of community and a "high regard" for distributive justice. He deplored the "narrowness" of the "national ideals" in their latter-day manifestations. He deplored the centrality the "right" to private property had in our political culture.

He then outlined the kind of society that might evolve. "First of all, this society would be firmly and unequivocally Christian in its inspiration . . . with firm roots in the different Christian churches, above all in Catholicism as the religion of the majority, which has played a unique part in forming the Irish character."

The society would be specifically Irish in its inspiration, drawing on the mixed origins of our society, Gaelic, Anglo-Irish, Ulster-Scots and English. Relations between the North and South would be based on wholehearted acceptance of the principle that political unity be preceded by a unity of hearts (ie, unity only with the agreement of the people of the North and recognition of the then constitutional status of Northern Ireland).

Provision of social welfare would be recognised as a fundamental fact of social life.

He toned down the Christian flavour of this in his later writings but the rest remained consistent. And it was in his success in changing minds on Northern policy and on the pluralist character of society in the Republic and in his consolidation of attitudes on social welfare and distributive justice that he was the most influential.

He, along with Conor Cruise O'Brien and a few others, laid the ideological groundwork for the Good Friday agreement. Without their advocacy there would not have been a willingness on the part of the electorate in the South to agree to change Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, which claimed the sovereignty of the State over the whole of the island. Although he was out of office for 11 years by the time the Good Friday agreement was signed, that was his greatest achievement and generations of Irish people will have reason to be grateful for the vast contribution Garret made to that.

As was evident from that essay Seeking a National Purpose 45 years ago, Garret had only a thin commitment to the ideal of equality, which perhaps is surprising because his personal dispositions would have suggested otherwise. But he was from privileged background – not in monetary terms but certainly in cultural ones.

Garret was not scandalised by the scale of inequality here and rarely exposed to it.

He believed it was politically impossible to radically redistribute wealth and income; he believed there could be only an incremental redistribution from aggregate increases in wealth and income.

He remained therefore content to live with evidence of radical inequality and was often dismissive of that evidence. And his contentment with radical inequality added considerably to the contentment of our political culture with radical inequality, such was his influence.

He was right, of course, about the political impossibility of a radical redistribution of wealth in our present political environment.

But there was a similar impossibility in 1964 about achieving a pluralist, diverse, tolerant society, willing to acknowledge the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

He set about changing that and he, with others, made that impossibility possible. The same could have applied to the idea of equality.

The political culture then and now is hostile to the idea of equality or at least to the means of achieving equality and it will remain the same unless people set about changing minds, arguing for a very different society in terms that people can understand and drawing on those elements of our embedded culture that is conducive to that ideal, just as Garret did in arguing for a pluralist Ireland.