Nil nisi bonum de mortuis dicere – speak only good of the dead – is a difficult command to follow. In fact impossible. There are clearly people who are dead – try Hitler, Stalin, some of my old teachers – who test that injunction to destruction. But they’re dead quite some time now and that seems to make a difference.
Garret Fitzgerald is dead less than twenty-four hours and the commentators have been following the Nil nisi injunction to the letter. Praise of all kinds from all quarters is being heaped on him. One politician – I think it was Seamus Mallon – said he was one of the great political figures of the twentieth century. I suppose it’s no more over-the-top than to go “Wow!” when an Englishwoman says three Irish words.
He’s indissolubly linked with the Anglo-Irish Agreement which hugely annoyed the unionist population here, and for some that was enough to make the Agreement a good thing and Fitzgerald a hero. Others like myself saw the Agreement as a British-Irish effort to block the electoral rise of Sinn Féin. In that attempt it and he were successful certainly temporarily. Did the Anglo-Irish Agreement pave the way to the Good Friday Agreement? Probably not. The Hume-Adams talks and the IRA ceasefires did that.
Was Garret a great politician? I don’t think so. He failed as often as he succeeded in electoral terms. His efforts to make the south of Ireland a more secular society had partial success, although Gay Byrne could probably claim as much credit on that score. Garret’s claim – or the claim of others for him – that he understood the north particularly well, having a republican father and a northern Presbyterian mother, is shaky. There are lots of people whose parentage is similar and who haven’t a clue about northern politics.
He was regarded, former Fine Gael Taoiseach Alan Dukes said last night, with feelings of “amused affection” by his peers and the public. That got it just about right, I think. When I studied at UCD in the mid-1960s, Garret was a lecturer there. He was the epitome of the absent-minded professor, only on speed. He thought at lightning pace, moved at lightning pace, talked at lightning pace. A lot of students didn’t know what the hell he was talking about most of the time but they still enjoyed him and were amused by him.
It’d be easy to remember his strenuous efforts to block the electoral path of Sinn Féin while at the same time calling on republicanism to embrace electoral politics. It’d be even easier to remember his very Dublin-4 dismissal of Charlie Haughey as a man ‘of flawed pedigree’. But I prefer to remember him before all that, lecturing in economics in UCD, circa 1965. He delivered his lectures in a tumbling, word-running-into-word non-stop torrent, which occasionally even he would feel uneasy about. On one occasion he had been hammering on full-speed for some ten minutes, scarcely drawing breath, and everyone in the lecture hall was scribbling flat-out in a hopeless attempt to keep up with him. Eventually Garret paused, looked over his glasses and asked in his naive way: “I’m not going too fast, am I?” A voice from the fifth row, belonging to one Seamus McCotter from Swatragh Co Derry (one of Charlie Haughey’s many northern cousins, as it happens) responded in an audible whisper: “You’re goin’ like a fucking ‘puter!” [= computer]. Garret seemed genuinely baffled when the lecture theatre exploded in a yell of laughter.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam – May he rest in peace.