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Garret FitzGerald, former Irish prime minister, dies at 85

May 19, 2011 |  8:57 am

Fitz Garret FitzGerald, 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.

Flags were lowered to half-staff as politicians of all parties paid tribute to FitzGerald as a man of integrity and vision.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, on the third day of her visit to Ireland, hailed FitzGerald as "a true statesman" who had "made a lasting contribution to peace."

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, the Fianna Fail party, and claim first place in a national election this year for the first time.

FitzGerald's closest political colleagues said he was deeply heartened to see this week's first-ever trip to Dublin by the queen, a crowning event of the Northern Ireland peace process that FitzGerald did much to promote during his two terms in office between 1981 and 1987.

FitzGerald's greatest triumph was the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1985 with Britain, an achievement shaped by his Dublin upbringing with a northern Protestant mother and southern Catholic father.

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.

FitzGerald, a relative liberal in his conservative Catholic party, 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 prime minister between 1981 and 1987, FitzGerald was unable to reverse a fiscal and economic crisis bequeathed him by the reckless spending of Haughey's government of the late 1970s.

Ireland suffered double-digit unemployment, heavy emigration and a losing battle to control deficits during his six years in power.

Fine Gael's partner in government, union-linked Labour, refused to back FitzGerald's austerity plans, and the coalition installed in June 1981 collapsed after eight months. Haughey returned to power but only for nine months, and FitzGerald returned in 1982 heading another coalition.

After resigning as Fine Gael leader after the party's election defeat in 1987, FitzGerald remained active during election campaigns.

-- Associated Press

Photo: Garret FitzGerald in 1984. Credit: Getty Images