Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.4

October 23, 2003


Former prime minister speaks about Ireland

by Clare Byrne

And still they gaz’d, and still the wonder grew/ That one small head could carry all he knew - Oliver Goldsmith

When Economics Professor Ian Irvine thinks back to his classes with Garret FitzGerald at University College Dublin, he recalls experiencing the same sense of bewilderment as the schoolchildren in Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village. That’s because FitzGerald was a brilliant economist who baffled his students with complex economic theories before entering Irish political life in the ’60s.

Minister for Foreign Affairs, then Prime Minister (or Taoiseach) of Ireland from 1982 to 1987, Garret FitzGerald was one of Ireland’s great statesmen and perhaps the most respected. When he came to Concordia University on Oct. 9, his former pupil, now a professor of economics at Concordia, introduced him in glowing terms.

“Garret FitzGerald influenced and shaped Irish society more than any Irish politician of his generation,” Irvine said.

FitzGerald was invited by Concordia’s Centre for Canadian Irish Studies to speak about Northern Ireland and the normalization of British-Irish relations. It’s a subject he’s intimately acquainted with, having negotiated the landmark Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. The deal gave the Republic of Ireland a say in the governance of Northern Ireland for the first time and marked a new departure in the hitherto strained British-Irish relationship.

“No two countries are working together with such a degree of intimacy in Europe after such negative history,” FitzGerald remarked of the two neighbours.

He outlined three factors that facilitated the emergence of this bonne entente. The first was Ireland’s independence, he said. The Irish Free State was declared in 1922.

FitzGerald maintained the separation was particularly positive because it lessened Ireland’s economic dependence on Britain.

“Had there been no nationalism, we would have become very dependent on Britain for transfers (subsidies), and we would have been very frustrated.”

The second was the elimination of economic disparaties between Britian and Ireland, made possible by Ireland’s entry to the EU in 1973.

“EU membership allowed us to catch up with Britain. And we were also much more successful in the EU than Britain, which gave us a great boost in self-confidence.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the initiation by FitzGerald of talks with Margaret Thatcher on Northern Ireland in the 1980s melted away decades of British distrust of the Irish government. Britain was still sore with Ireland for insisting on observing neutrality during World War Two and viewed its former colony with suspicion and disdain.

“What was necessary was for the British government to listen to us,” explained FitzGerald.

It took all of FitzGerald’s skill as a diplomat to convince Margaret Thatcher the Irish government could be of assistance in resolving ‘The Troubles,’ which were claiming civilian lives in Britain. The resulting Anglo-Irish Agreement marked the beginning of a peace process, which led to an IRA (Irish Republican Army) cease-fire in 1994 and nearly a decade of relative calm.

Reflecting on Irish foreign policy, FitzGerald commented on its “remarkable” similarity to Canadian foreign policy.

“Our position is a principled one, like Canada’s,” he said referring to both countries’ opposition to the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

More than a hundred people attended FitzGerald’s lecture in the J.A. De Sève cinema, for the most part members of Montreal’s Irish community. His insightful and often funny reflections on British-Irish relations won him a standing ovation.

A number of distinguished academics and public figures are invited each year by the Centre for Canadian Irish Studies to speak on themes related to Ireland or the Irish. FitzGerald was the third speaker in this year’s series.

The Centre was created three years ago to promote an understanding of Ireland and the Irish experience in Canada, and offers both a minor and a certificate in Canadian Irish Studies.

This fall, two Irish experts will speak at Concordia. Vincent Carey and Angus Mitchell will lecture on Oct. 28 and Nov. 6, respectively. For more details, contact the Centre for Irish Studies at 848-8711.