It was a very difficult time politically back in early 1985. The ‘war’ had been ongoing for a lot of years by that stage and there was no solution in sight. It was a time of despair. The only bright spot on a very dull horizon was the two governments had finally, after years of megaphone diplomacy, started negotiations but with Mrs Thatcher still holding power hopes for a breakthrough were not high. That was the general consensus anyway.
As we worked late on Mondays - to get the Tuesday edition hot on to the streets straight from our printing press -I had just arrived for my tea at my home in Culmore about six o’clock when Larry Doherty, the then Chief Photographer of the ‘Journal’, burst through the door - like only he could - shouting excitedly, ‘Where are you? Quick, com’ on - where are you?’
It turned out that SDLP leader, John Hume, had come down to the office to tell me that Garret FitzGerald and a top level deputation where coming to Derry and they would be visiting the Journal offices.
“This is big,’”said Larry. And he was right.
Dr. FitzGerald’s visit was the first ever to Derry by a southern Taoiseach. He was accompanied by the high profile Minister for Foreign Affairs, Peter Barry, and a whole host of top diplomats.
One of those diplomats was Jim Sharkey, a Derry man with huge Donegal connections, who was instumental, along with John Hume, in getting Dr FitzGerald to visit.
At the time Jim explained that Peter Barry had been north a lot of times but the Taoiseach knowledge of the ‘lay of the land’ was a bit vague so he wanted to meet a good cross section of the community in the North’s most nationalist city to get a feel for what was happening on the ground.
And he did that day.
He spent a long time at the Journal where he was greated by the late Frank McCarroll, the proprietor of the Journal, and his family. It must, now that I look back on it, been a great day for Frank. A former nationalist councillor, he had been on a march on St Patrick’s Day in 1948 - former editor, the late Frank Curran told me this story - which had been beaten off the street by RUC men wielding batons. Now the Taoiseach of the Republic was visiting him and his paper. And the RUC were providing the protection this time around
I suppose for me my abiding memory of it all was that FitzGerald was far from the ‘bumbling fool’ intellectual he was portaryed by by the Dublin media. He was as sharp as a tack and was obviously not only highly intelligent but also extremely well briefed.
And he was a brillaint politician.
Just months before he arrived in the Journal there had been the famous incident in London when he had gone to see Thatcher to discuss the report of the New Ireland Forum. Thinking things had gone well, he had given a major interview to the assembled throng of reporters in which he described their discussions as ‘constructive and optimistic’.
He was hardly back at the Irish embassy in London before Thatcher came out with her famous ‘out, out, out’ line - ruling out a united Ireland, joint authority or, basically, any role for the Irish government in the north’s affairs. She, to put it at its mildest, completely humiliated him.
Everyone really believed then that he really was a ‘bumbling fool’.
But the really odd thing was that this particular cloud had a silver lining. What most people in the British establishment thought was that she had gone too far; that he was the one guy who was trying to do a deal - former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, had rejected the Forum report saying it was a united Ireland or nothing - and that she had been too extreme. There was a backlash in America too, with the ‘Four Horsemen’, led by Ted Kennedy and House Speaker, Tom Foley. Dr FitzGerald never once publicly complained about Thatcher’s treatment, and it proved to be a great strategy.
By October of ‘85 they signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
He should be remembered fondly for that achievement alone.