DEATH OF A STATESMAN (and more besides?)

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Image is open source from Wikipedia, and from 2009.

Garret Fitzgerald died on May 19th. He was a former Taoiseach and all round senior statesman of our republic. R.I.P.

In all the rush to quite rightly praise him (on balance albeit-there were some serious gaffs), I wonder to what extent his passing reflects also the passing of a certain relationship with Europe as well? In fact Fitzgerald’s views on Europe were more mixed and critical than is commonly realized.

There is no doubt that Dr. Fitzgerald was a committed Europhile and indeed one of the memories I have of him is a talk he gave in the Ardilaun hotel here in Galway during one of the dreadful Nice 1 or 2 referendums-not sure which. He was old and tired but still sharp. He spoke with great authority and conviction for the ‘yes’ side. One questioner challenged him on the topic of fisheries, the questioner arguing that ‘Europe had given our fish away’, an assertion which he somewhat bridled at.

He counter-argued that he was very involved in securing an increase in our quotas under to so called Hague Preferences in 1976. The problem was yes this was an increase, but on an already far too low base. So its true Garret did some good for Irish fishermen, but it is also true that our historic quota allocation of fish has never been fair and has never been put to rights. Perhaps his irritation was a reflection of that underlying reality?

I remember him and the former Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Noel Dorr, both sitting down with a young female law student who was previously arguing with some vehemence that the Nice Treaty was in conflict with our constitution, etc. I’m not sure if they talked her into voting yes, but they were both utterly genuine and non-condescending in discussing the matter with her: they were of that generation that took ideas and people seriously and expected discussion.

It is interesting once again to re-read his essay “Ireland and Europe”* given the current pathological ‘fear and loathing’ relationship we now seem to have stumbled into with ‘Europe’. His core points remain valid today:

The Commission for all of its lack of democratic legitimacy and its sometimes right-wing bias, has been broadly a defender of small states like Ireland. If a bail-out interest rate reduction were left to the Commission, we would have it in the bag by now. They are actually one of the few EU voices more or less somehow on our side-something that is perhaps not well communicated.

Moreover, he recounts how in the mid 1970s the French made a serious bid to turn the Summit of the Heads of Government and State (what later became the European Council) into much more than a meeting-up forum but actually some sort of legislative body that would empower the big states to outflank the smaller states. It was defeated. But note Garret’s final injunction:

‘the larger states will go to considerable lengths to substitute a ‘Directoire’ of the three larger states for the existing carefully balanced Community structure, but second, that they cannot force such a change on the smaller states if these take a firm stand on the treaties’ (p.168)

Arguably what we have now is a situation where the French and Germans are excessively dominating the Euro crisis, and small states like Portugal, Ireland and Greece are being isolated one by one. A common stand by the smaller states might perhaps change things given there is not exactly very clear leadership from the Germans and French: the line that there will be no debt haircuts or rescheduling…..except until after 2013…….is a complete joke (at our expense).

It is also telling that in that essay written in 2003 he was able to detect that our relationship and goodwill with our EU partners was in quite poor repair…sowing in part at least the seeds for our current shabby treatment no doubt?

Yet much of Garret’s support for the EU grew from the dim 1950s period, when the EEC was a more naive and tentative structure which aimed partially to replace great power politics and make borders less important-all vital points to any Irish constitutional nationalist of that period. That European ‘age of innocence’, if it ever really existed, is now long gone……and the perception of an all-powerful and all-restricting EU has become a commonplace to such an extent that mainstream Ireland has to all intents and purposes become Eurosceptical.

His passing could be a marker in more ways than we realise

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