Born in 1926, the fourth son of Desmond
veteran of the 1916 rebellion who served as Minister for External
Affairs and Minister for Defence in the first post-independence Irish
governments, a poet, philosopher and friend of Ezra Pound, and Mabel
FitzGerald [née McConnell] a Belfast Presbyterian who acted for
periods as secretary to George Bernard Shaw and George Moore.
Educated at Belvedere and UCD where he took a double
first in History and French and met his future wife, Joan O’Farrell.
He was called to the Bar in 1947 but never practiced, taking up
employment at the beginning of that year with Aer Lingus where he was
involved centrally in the development of the national airline. He also
developed a profile in journalism, writing and lecturing on economic
matters in particular.
By early 1958 he had left Aer Lingus to pursue a
career as an economic journalist, lecturer and consultant, acting at
various times over the next fifteen years as inter alia the Financial
Times correspondent in Dublin, a lecturer in economics in University
College Dublin, a weekly columnist for the Irish Times,
representative in Dublin of the BBC and the Economist, and
economic consultant to a wide variety of state and private enterprises.
He also developed strong relationships with the European Community and
was an unequivocal advocate for Irish membership, chairing the Irish
Council of the European Movement from 1959 to 1963.
Elected to the Seanad in 1965, he was appointed to
Gael Front Bench by Liam Cosgrave. On the retirement from Dáil
Éireann of John
A. Costello he was selected with Fergus O’Brien as a
Fine Gael candidate in the Dublin South-East constituency where he
topped the poll. He was appointed Opposition Spokesman on Education and
subsequently on Finance. With the change of Government in 1973, he was
appointed Minister for External Affairs in the National Coalition
Government, a post his father had held fifty years previously.
Besides his strong European inclinations, he had a
sustained interest in Northern Ireland, spending the day before his
appointment as Minister in Belfast. He was to break with precedent
during his tenure as Minister for Foreign Affairs by visiting Northern
Ireland regularly; as did senior members of his Department to meet and
build relationships with representatives of all political and social
groups. The rejection by extreme loyalism of the Tripartite Agreement
negotiated at Sunningdale in December 1973, and of the concepts of
power-sharing and an all-Ireland dimension at the heart of that
agreement, was possibly the most disappointing aspect of FitzGerald’s
period in Foreign Affairs but was more than counterbalanced by the
outstanding success of Ireland’s first Presidency of the Council of
the European Communities in the first half of 1975.
FitzGerald succeeded Liam Cosgrave as leader of Fine
Gael after the defeat of the National Coalition in the 1977 general
election. His success in rejuvenating and reorganizing the party and in
introducing a new generation of TDs such as John Bruton, Alan Dukes,
Ivan Yates, and Gemma Hussey, was unprecedented. After the general
election of November 1982 Fine Gael held only five seats less than Fianna
Fáil, while the party in the Oireachtas was actually larger.
His first period as Taoiseach was as leader of a
minority government between June 1981 and January 1982, a period of
extreme economic crisis. It was on a Dáil vote on John Bruton’s
second budget in January 1982 that the government fell. The events
surrounding the dissolution of the Dáil are now best remembered for the
approaches to President Patrick Hillery by members of Fianna Fáil that
were to have such a detrimental effect on the presidential aspirations
of Brian Lenihan in 1990.
A third general election, in November 1982, resulted
in FitzGerald being returned for a second term as Taoiseach, heading a
Fine Gael-Labour coalition with a working majority. The effectiveness of
this government was significantly hampered by the depth of the country’s
economic problems. While Fine Gael wished to pursue a policy of fiscal
rectitude to control public spending and reduce the budget deficit, the
Labour Party was opposed to any diminution of public services. The
negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985 was a
considerable achievement but failures to achieve advances in the
secularization of Irish society were a disappointment, most tellingly
the defeat of the constitutional referendum to allow for divorce. The
Labour Party withdrew from government on economic issues in January 1987
and Fine Gael were defeated in the subsequent general election.
FitzGerald resigned as party leader, to be replaced by Alan Dukes. He
retired as a public representative in 1992. He served as Chancellor of
the National University of Ireland from 1997 until 2009.