There is very little I could say in tribute to Dr Garret FitzGerald that has not been said by those who knew him through his long life and worked with him closely. But as I write here from time to time, it would be remiss of me not to express my thoughts.
He was an inspiring figure, who truly had a vision of modern Ireland, taking its place in the world. He showed that politics can be used to bring change to a country.
While customary to mention such a figure in isolation at a time as this, I do see him with Sean Lemass and Des O’Malley in particular as political figures who shared this commitment, who understood ahead of their time the need to engage with Unionists if we truly believe in a united Ireland, and who fought against the orthodoxies of their parties in many respects.
Garret understood that a truly republican society would be a pluralist one, confidently patriotic but not aggressively assertive in its nationalism, and not tied in its morality to any one faith. He was courageous in leading the movement of the constitutional crusade when he clearly did not have a guarantee of success, as seen in the defeat of the divorce referendum in 1986.
From the perspective of Fine Gael, he led the party to its highest-ever share of votes, with 39% in November 1982. Despite his clear differences with some of his parliamentary party, he did not hold grievances, as seen in the 1989 election. Contesting two years after stepping down as party leader, in excellent and enviable vote management he encouraged Fine Gael voters to support his constituency colleague Joe Doyle, a conservative who had opposed his liberal agenda, and had the humility to be pleased with the fact that he polled behind him.
He led a rich and varied life, coming to politics relatively late by some standards. He taught economics in UCD to his future Finance Ministers, John Bruton and Alan Dukes, saying later that he only appointed First Class students to the position. Elected a senator in 1965 at 39, four years later in 1969, he was first elected as a TD in Dublin South-East; four years later in 1973 appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs; four years later in 1977 he became party leader; four years later in 1981, he became Taoiseach. A short term, lasting till February 1982, he was re-elected November 1982, forming a coalition with Labour that lasted till January 1987. He stepped down that year as party leader, and in 1992 retired from the Dáil. Throughout his life he provided expert analysis from the opinion pages of The Irish Times, and on air particularly at each election, and he continued to show an active interest on our engagement with the European Union.
It was a privilege and pleasure to meet him on a number of occasions; the first at a book launch in Bray when I was 11, and then years later, particularly recalling inviting him to speak in a debate in the Hist on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, and meeting him the following year as I was canvassing on the Lisbon Treaty a second time, and he was continuing work from his time as Minister for Foreign Affairs in the very early years of our EEC membership.
It is a sad day that we have lost him, but he will remain an inspiration in politics to me and many others.