DUBLIN (Reuters) - Garret FitzGerald, Ireland’s most popular elder statesman who twice served as prime minister and played a crucial role in paving the way for peace in Northern Ireland, has died at the age of 85, his family said Thursday.
Known universally as Garret and much loved for his dotty professor persona, the erudite economist played an important role in shaping modern Ireland.
His death, after a short illness, prompted tributes from around the world, including the Queen and Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.
As prime minister in the 1980s, FitzGerald persuaded Margaret Thatcher to give Dublin an official toehold in Northern Ireland, creating a channel for the two governments to overcome decades of mistrust which led to a historic peace deal in 1998.
That groundwork was crowned in stunning fashion on the eve of FitzGerald’s death when the British monarch delivered a landmark speech of reconciliation in Dublin.
President Mary McAleese told the state broadcaster RTE: “While I am so desperately sorry that he did not get to any of the events this week, I’m so glad he lived long enough to see a time when Her Majesty the Queen came to Ireland and made so many wonderful gestures of reconciliation.”
“He was utterly unique, one of nature’s political gentlemen ... He was the quintessential public servant.”
Ireland’s parliament suspended normal business so deputies could pay tribute to FitzGerald and the Irish tricolour flew at half-mast on all government buildings.
FitzGerald, whose mother was a Protestant from Northern Ireland, understood that community’s fear of “Rome Rule” and he strove to end the Catholic Church’s influence over the Irish Republic by liberalising the sale of condoms and trying to introduce divorce.
Unafraid to take unpopular decisions, he pushed through tough spending cuts to tackle Ireland’s runaway national debt but was punished for it in the polls.
He stepped down as leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party in 1987 after it lost power that year. Although he retired from politics in 1992, he continued to play an active role in public life right up to his death.
As foreign minister in the 1970s, FitzGerald raised Ireland’s status in what was then known as European Economic Community with his innovative views, energy and fluency in French and campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in the second Irish referendum on a European charter in 2009.
Vocal about Ireland’s current financial problems, he wrote a weekly newspaper column and attended economic briefings in Dublin until shortly before his death.
FitzGerald’s love of facts and figures was legendary. During one election campaign, party officials warned journalists not to mention opinion poll statistics in front of him for fear the arithmetical digression would wreck a whole day’s schedule.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny, wearing a black tie as a mark of respect, recalled that FitzGerald often “went down side-alleys in terms of discussions and they could drift on for hours.”
“It’s a legacy that very few will ever match,” Kenny told RTE about FitzGerald’s career.
His battles with Charles Haughey, the former leader of the centre-left Fianna Fail party, dominated the domestic political landscape in the 1980s and created a strange double act.
Haughey, who died in 2006, was a shrewd political operator dogged by scandal who had a love of fine French tailoring. FitzGerald was an absent-minded intellectual who once wore odd shoes during an election campaign.
FitzGerald’s teddy bear exterior concealed a determination that served him well in public life.
His political pedigree was stellar. His parents were fervent nationalists and his mother, despite her Northern Protestant background, held stronger republican views than her husband.
His father Desmond, a veteran of the 1916 rebellion against British rule, served as foreign minister in the 1920s.
Despite their Irish patriotism, FitzGerald’s parents had a deep love of English literature. T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats visited their home and FitzGerald’s mother had been a temporary secretary to George Bernard Shaw.
A graduate of University College Dublin, where he was awarded a double first in history and French, FitzGerald was called to the bar in 1947 but never practised law. Instead he joined Aer Lingus and was key to the development of the airline.
Before politics, he had careers in journalism and academia.
Editing by Jon Hemming