How I will remember Garret

Later this week Politico will publish a special e-book on Dr. Garret Fitzgerald. Here, Vincent Browne shares his memories of the former Taoiseach.

A few months ago, I went around to Garret FitzGerald's home in Ranelagh on a Saturday afternoon, to talk about a mutual friend, Michael Sweetman, who had been killed in the Staines air crash in 1972.

A commemorative book is being published on Michael and the idea was that Garret and I would write a joint piece. We were on our own, although Garret's daughter, Mary, came in from the adjoining house to give us tea.

Garret said the first time he had met Michael was in the early 1960s, in Copenhagen. Michael was working for the Confederation of Irish Industry (a predecessor of Ibec) at the time, and Garret was doing work for the Committee on Industrial Reorganisation, which Sean Lemass had established to prepare the way for free trade and, ultimately, EEC entry.

Garret said the conference was about the hosiery industry and he was advising a branch of that industry about reorganisation. I was intrigued by this and asked Garret what he knew about the hosiery industry.

This prompted him to disclose that, at the time, he was a world expert on women's stockings. It wasn't just what he said, it was the way he said it, in exaggerated mimicry of himself.

I started to laugh and laugh and he started to laugh as well, tears streaming down his face. I admitted I was laughing at him, and he said he was too.

We talked for awhile more about women's stockings, and that got us onto other topics, some of them quite personal to Garret.

At one stage, I told him how Charles Haughey had made no close friends through politics and I thought the same was true for him.

He more or less agreed but, as I was leaving, he said it wasn't true he had made no close friends through politics - we had become friends through politics. I was touched. And it was true.

Garret was lecturing in economics at UCD in the early 1960s when I went there. I don't remember him as a good lecturer, for he spoke too fast. He had done his primary degree in history and French, and it was some years later before he did a PhD in economics, on planning.

As John Bowman recalled last week, Garret was propelled into politics by a superb 12-hour performance on the election count programme on RTE following the 1965 election. His quick mind and statistical genius was dazzling and, when he ran for Fine Gael in the ensuing Senate elections, he was known throughout the country.

It was at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis after that election that I first met him, at the back of the Round Room in the Mansion House (beside where his body was in repose yesterday).

I think I must have been co-opted immediately into Garret's circle, for I went around to his and Joan's house at Eglinton Road in Dublin 4 regularly thereafter.

Garret seemed to work productively all the time. His output, then and thereafter, was prodigious. He used to type furiously on a battered typewriter, his hair flopping down his forehead, his shirt out of his trousers, with reports and documents strewn around him. I found it exhausting even to watch him.

Joan was very much the person in charge in that house - and not just of the house, it seemed, but also of Garret and of many of his entourage, including myself. Joan and Garret were keen that I should get married early, as they had done, as though it were a chore to be got over quickly and then one could get on with one's life.

Joan made an effort to get me married to a fellow student at UCD. Happily, particularly for the woman Joan had in mind, that did not materialise.

Pat Cox said last week that Garret would have been a success at anything he put his hand to. That was not true. He would have been the worst taxi driver ever. For he was a terrible driver, an illustration of which can be gleaned from his boast during those years that the only exercise he got was steering his large blue Ford Zephyr out of the way of oncoming vehicles or walls, when he had become momentarily distracted.

It was Declan Costello who persuaded him to enter politics, first by standing for the Senate. Declan had produced a personal manifesto in 1964, The Just Society. I suspect Declan expected Fine Gael to reject it, which would have given him justification to join the Labour Party.

Unintentionally, I think Garret defused the Just Society by himself. He had written an essay for Studies, the Jesuit journal, entitled 'Towards a National Purpose', a few months before the 1965 election. For him, it was also a personal manifesto. It outlined an idea of a pluralist Ireland, respecting the religious and moral convictions of people of different religions, and motivated in part by an anxiousness to appeal to Northern unionists.

But it had none of the robust commitment to the egalitarian Ireland that the Just Society envisaged. And it was Garret's manifesto, rather than Declan's, that seeped into the ethos of Fine Gael. This was in part because of Garret's energy and persuasiveness, and in part because Fine Gael was less challenged by the idea of a pluralist Ireland than by the idea of an equal Ireland.

But Garret and Fine Gael still professed to follow the Just Society line while, unwittingly, abandoning it.

Garret was a compassionate man, and disliked poverty. But he never grappled with the structural inequalities in Irish society, and was uncomfortable when confronted with evidence of such inequalities.

He did not believe it was possible to distribute wealth and income without growth - his idea was that one would redistribute new wealth and additional income but, politically, it was impossible to change the existing distribution.

I think his greatest achievement was, along with Conor Cruise O'Brien, in changing attitudes in the south on Northern policy. Garret, in conjunction with Paddy Harte, produced a quite radical document in 1969 which stated that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland could be changed only with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

That became the cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, and Garret was the first national politician to argue for that.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was important, for it gave the south a say (but only that) in the administration of Northern Ireland.

That too was an important step in the later peace process, for without the acceptance by the British of a role for the Dublin government, the peace agreement could hardly have happened.

Garret played a major role in changing of mindsets in the south on that issue - and changing mindsets, arguably, is the most telling achievement of any political figure.

But he also played a major role in consolidating the prevailing mindset that there is no possible radical alternative to the prevailing social order, with its hierarchies, inequalities, belittlements and impoverishments.

I became involved in a monthly current affairs magazine, Nusight, in 1969. From the outset, Garret was integrally involved, along with our mutual friend Michael Sweetman. I recall Garret being out at the printers in Clonskeagh late at night, correcting proofs. He contributed anonymously to the publication (I had the daft idea then that there should be no bylines), all without any remuneration or expectation of remuneration. So did Michael Sweetman.

Garret had a recollection of the demise of Nusight which had all to do with my failure to understand elementary business practice. He used to recall how we published a big edition of the magazine in September 1969 with brilliant photographs of the riots in Northern Ireland the previous month and lengthy background pieces explaining what had happened and why.

His criticism was that we lost money on every copy we sold (we sold more than 30,000 copies, whereas the previous circulation was around 7,000) because the marginal cost was bigger than the marginal revenue.

My recollection of the demise of Nusight is different. Through a contributor to the magazine, Doreen Rehill, I organised an investment of IR£20,000 (a lot of money then) from a disparate group of Doreen's friends. A formal handover of the money was organised. I felt overawed by this, so I asked Garret and Michael to come along to the meeting, in a magnificent Georgian building on Harcourt Street.

We met in the splendid board room of that building. Doreen's cohort came into the room, led by a formidable character, Noel Griffin, then head of Waterford Glass and very much of the Fianna Fáil affliction.

They sat at the head of the table with Garret, Michael and me towards the far end.

Almost immediately, Garret got into an argument with Noel Griffin about what I now don't recall, but certainly it had nothing at all to do with the business at hand. The argument grew more hot-tempered. I pleadingly muttered to Garret, asking him to stop.

The inevitable happened. Noel Griffin said he was not going to be involved in any enterprise that was associated with ''a crowd of fucking Blueshirts''. The would-be investors rose and left. Garret, Michael and I sat there silent for a few seconds, until Garret again, in a perfect imitation of himself, said: ''We're better off without that lot.'' Michael and I broke into laughter.

Years later, when I was involved with Magill, I did an interview with Garret in April 1981, just before the Fine Gael Ard Fheis. By this time, Joan had fallen out of love with me, and had tried to persuade Garret not to do the interview.

We did the interview in his office in Leinster House. Joan phoned at least three times during the session, adding greatly to Garret's anxiety about the interview. I asked him about his threatened resignation from the Cosgrave cabinet in 1976, over the issue of allegations of Garda torture and abuse of people in custody.

Garret told the story of what had happened. It was agreed that I would let him have a copy of the interview prior to publication, but only for the purpose of checking that I had quoted him correctly, not to allow him second thoughts on anything he had said.

I dropped off a copy of the interview on a Saturday to his then home on Palmerston Road. The Fine Gael Ard Fheis was in session that weekend.

On the Sunday night, I was at home and got a call from Garret who was in an agitated state. He asked that I go around to see him, which I did as I was then living nearby. He said he was dejected. He had had a wonderful Ard Fheis, things were looking very good for the party, but then he came home to read the interview which he sensed would prove fatal to him politically.

This was because there was an insinuation in what he had said about a certain Fine Gael politician, who could cause a major rupture in the party if the interview were published in its then form, and the furore would do great damage (I have to be careful here, for that gentleman might still cause a furore).

I said I couldn't delete the reference on the basis of personal friendship. Garret said he understood, but it would cause terrible hurt. He said Joan was furious with him for having gone through with the interview in the first place.

At home, we were having people to dinner that Sunday night, and my wife was phoning to get me to return. As the conversation dragged on and on, I said to Garret: ''I'm in trouble with my wife." He said: ''And what trouble do you think I am in with my wife?"

Then he remembered that he had told me of the resignation episode in a private conversation years previously, and said that I had used that private conversation to put public questions to him, which was unfair. I deleted the item.

Although there were tensions between us when he was Taoiseach, we remained friends, but that was often tested by my friendship with Charles Haughey, whom I also liked and admired. Garret regarded anything said in Charlie's favour either as a calculated attempt to rile him or as evidence of moral degeneracy - or both.

Charlie was kinder about Garret. Although he thought Garret had been an underwhelming Taoiseach, he admired Garret's continuing contribution to public life through his Irish Times columns.

He agreed with Garret on transport and on budgetary policy (Charlie thought the pro-cyclical budgets would cause damage ultimately, as did Garret; and Garret was one of the very few who said this publicly).Charlie's antipathy to Garret dated back to UCD in the mid-1940s, when the boys from Christian Brothers schools were regarded as inferior by the Jesuit-educated Fine Gael elite who dominated UCD back then.

The most remarkable and admirable feature of Garret was his devotion to Joan, especially in her infirmity during her latter years.

He looked after her every need, and was as solicitous as it was possible for anybody to be: attentive, caring, loving and protective.

That generosity of spirit shone through much of what he did publicly, and explains in large measure why he was so liked, so admired, and will now be so missed.