Garret FitzGerald (AP Photo)
DUBLIN (AP) — Garret FitzGerald, a beloved figure who as Ireland's prime minister in the 1980s was an early architect for peace in neighboring Northern Ireland, died Thursday in a Dublin hospital, the government and his family announced. He was 85.
FitzGerald, former leader of Ireland's perennial No. 2 party Fine Gael, lived just long enough to see Fine Gael finally overtake its old enemy, Fianna Fail, to claim first place in a national election this year for the first time.
FitzGerald's closest political colleagues said he also was deeply heartened to see this week's first-ever trip to Dublin by Queen Elizabeth II, a crowning event of the Northern Ireland peace process that FitzGerald did much to promote during his two terms in office from 1981 to 1987.
"Garret was always burning with this desire for peace and reconciliation," said a former government colleague, Gemma Hussey. "In a way, as he was slipping off, this was a wonderful week for him to go."
FitzGerald's greatest triumph is the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1985 with Britain, an achievement shaped by his Dublin upbringing with a northern Protestant mother and southern Catholic father.
After suffering years of rebuffs, in 1985 he persuaded then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — renowned for her coolness to Irish nationalism — that she must concede a role for the Republic of Ireland in managing the north's affairs for the first time.
The treaty infuriated the British territory's Protestant majority but proved to be a game-changer for peace. It created a space where Ireland and the north's Catholic leaders could begin to engage with both Britain and the north's Protestants, culminating in the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
FitzGerald was a unique figure in Irish politics: an intellectual and university economist who turned to parliament in mid-career. His polished manners and soft-spoken wit offered a polar opposite to Ireland's dominant politician of the day, the corrupt and coarse Charles Haughey. Their parliamentary battles were the centerpiece of Irish political life in the 1980s.
While Haughey embraced a millionaire's lifestyle funded by secret donations from businessmen, FitzGerald was credited even by his most ardent opponents with an innate honesty and humility, although critics said he lacked the cut-throat judgment and cunning needed to succeed in Irish politics.
"I greatly admired his integrity, his abilities and his unfailing politeness and courtesy," said the current Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin. "He was a person who cared deeply about Ireland."
He was smarter than just about anyone else in the room, too.
"He was miles ahead of most people in most conversations," said Hussey, who recalled how FitzGerald liked to amuse himself by studying troves of decades-old statistics. One of his greatest joys, she said, was to meet a fellow statistician.
"Sometimes he went down side alleys in discussions — and they could go on for hours," said Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who was a Fine Gael backbencher when FitzGerald was in power. "He had an eternal optimism over what could be achieved through politics."
FitzGerald was a relative liberal in his conservative Catholic party who sought greater roles for women in public life. He was an enthusiast for the European Union, which Ireland joined soon after Fine Gael came to power in 1973. FitzGerald served as foreign minister in that 1973-77 government.
As 1980s prime minister FitzGerald found himself unable to reverse a fiscal and economic crisis bequeathed him by Haughey's recklessly spending government of the late 1970s.
Fine Gael's partner in government, union-linked Labour, refused to back FitzGerald's austerity plans. Ireland suffered double-digit unemployment, heavy emigration and a losing battle to control deficits during his six years in power.
After resigning as Fine Gael leader upon the party's election defeat in 1987 to Haughey, FitzGerald remained active during election campaigns.
FitzGerald's first job after graduating from University College Dublin was to oversee the strategic development of Ireland's national airline, Aer Lingus.
"Without any of the modern-day analysis tools, Dr. FitzGerald brought his keen economic mind to bear on how to best to plan and utilize aircraft, laying the foundations for the future success of the airline," Aer Lingus said in a statement.
In 1959 FitzGerald returned to University College Dublin as an economics lecturer, serving there until his election to parliament a decade later.
He also wrote regular columns for Ireland's newspaper of record, The Irish Times, for 60 years.
"Garret was the Renaissance man of our time," said Irish President Mary McAleese. "His thoughtful writing, distinctive voice and probing intellect all combined to make him one of our national treasures.
"Above all, Garret FitzGerald was a true public servant. Steeped in the history of the state, he constantly strove to make Ireland a better place for all its people," McAleese said.
FitzGerald's wife of 52 years, Joan, died in 1999. He is survived by sons John and Mark, daughter Mary and several grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were not announced. A full state funeral was expected next week following Monday's visit of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press