It is fitting Queen should visit as FitzGerald bowed out

INSIDE POLITICS: Garret FitzGerald did more than any leader in the State’s history to build bridges between Ireland and Britain…

INSIDE POLITICS:Garret FitzGerald did more than any leader in the State's history to build bridges between Ireland and Britain

THERE WAS something providential about the fact that Dr Garret FitzGerald, one of our greatest political leaders, died during the hugely successful, and surprisingly emotional, State visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland.

FitzGerald did more than any other political leader in this State’s history to build bridges between Ireland and Britain and between the people who live on this island. The Queen’s visit and her subtly moving speech in Dublin Castle have finally put the seal on the kind of relationship between the two countries for which FitzGerald had worked all his political life.

More than half a century ago he had a vision of a pluralist and tolerant Ireland with North-South relations on a sound footing and good neighbourly relations with Britain. Huge obstacles had to be overcome before that came to pass. The vicious terror campaign of the Provisional IRA was the most difficult, but other seemingly intractable problems had to be dealt with as well.


In death FitzGerald is receiving the accolades he deserves, but during his political life he faced fierce opposition as he tried to bring the country along with him. He was a politician who had the courage to lead public opinion rather than follow it and he paid an electoral price for that. Ultimately, though, so much of what is good about Ireland today – its tolerance, the outward-looking attitude of the majority of its people as expressed in involvement in the EU, and the good relations with Britain – reflect the goals he set for the country back in the early 1960s.

Breaking out of the narrow backward-looking version of nationalism that developed such a grip on the country in the first half of the 20th century was no easy task. Like Seán Lemass, the Irish leader he most admired, FitzGerald was determined that this country should look outwards and take its place among the nations of the world.

Joining Europe was a liberation which allowed most of us to break free from the shackles of the past and the obsession with Anglo-Irish relations. Explaining why more than 80 per cent of Irish people voted to abandon the narrow concept of sovereignty and join Europe in 1972, Conor Cruise O’Brien observed: “There were quite a few people who, in their hearts, were frightened at the idea of being locked up alone in the cold, clammy, dark with Kathleen Ní Houlihan and her memories of the dead.”

Unfortunately the Troubles fuelled the bloodthirsty side of Kathleen Ní Houlihan and it took courage for FitzGerald and like-minded politicians to chart a way out of the mindless cycle of violence.

Queen Elizabeth hit the nail on the head in a key passage of her speech. “So much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.”

Hopefully, the visit will not just have a positive impact on the present, but will also enable us to look at the past in a more clear- sighted way. The popular view of the past is still too often viewed through the narrow prism of Irish republicanism with its emphasis on oppression and violence. That in turn fuels the ignorant ideology of those still committed to violence for its own sake.

The Queen’s acknowledgment of the various traditions on this island should help us to open our eyes to our own past which is far more complex and varied than the republican myth would allow. While we have come to recognise the validity of the unionist tradition on the island there is still a reluctance to give proper recognition to the proud tradition of democratic nationalism, which has actually done far more to shape Irish democracy than the actions of violent republicans.

The visit of President Obama will provide another opportunity to focus attention on the democratic Irish tradition, as the president is expected to pay tribute to Daniel O’Connell, one of the truly great men of Irish history.

O’Connell was a towering figure who inspired Irish Catholics and gave them the courage to seek freedom and justice. What made him remarkable was that he did not restrict his ambitions to the emancipation of his own people, but campaigned tirelessly for universal liberty. The abolition of black slavery was one of the causes dear to O’Connell’s heart. In the general election of 1832 that followed Catholic Emancipation and the Great Reform Act, O’Connell led the first organised mass political party in Europe. All his party’s candidates had to take a pledge to support not only the repeal of the Act of Union, but also a programme of political reform that included the abolition of negro slavery.

At the first meeting of the World-Anti Slavery Convention in 1840, the New York delegate James Canning Fuller declared: “There is a charm in the name Daniel O’Connell all over the universe. Mr O’Connell could do more for the suppression of slavery in the United States than any other man.”

It was this reputation that prompted the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass to visit Ireland in 1845 and speak alongside O’Connell at a number of anti-slavery public meetings. “My sympathy is not confined to the narrow limits of my own green island,” declared O’Connell at one of those meetings. “My heart walks abroad and wherever the miserable is to be succoured and the slave is to be set free, there my spirit is at home and I delight to dwell in its abode.”

Years later Douglass reflected that the death of O’Connell had been a great blow to “the cause of the American slave”. He expressed regret that the Irish leader had been succeeded “by the Duffys, Mitchels, Meagher and others, men who loved liberty for themselves and their country but were utterly destitute of sympathy with the cause of liberty in countries other than their own”.*

Since the establishment of the independent Irish State in 1922, the Duffys, Mitchels and their successors, who rebelled in arms against British rule, have been given the pride of place in official history, while O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond have been airbrushed from the popular version of events.

Surely it is time, now that we have been able to welcome the Queen, to properly acknowledge the leaders of the past who left us a great legacy of democratic values and institutions. A true appreciation of our past would be of inestimable help in shaping a better future, free of the stain of politically motivated violence.

*Quotations from Liberator, Patrick Geoghegan's recent biography of O'Connell