Obituary: Garret FitzGerald, politician, economist and journalist

As prime minister of Ireland he signed the Anglo-Irish agreement with Thatcher

Garret FitzGerald, politician, economist and journalist.

Born: 9 February, 1926, in Dublin.

Died: 19 May, 2011, in Dublin, aged 85.

GARRET FitzGerald was twice Ireland's Taoiseach, or prime minister, and will be best remembered for signing the Anglo-Irish agreement with Margaret Thatcher in 1985 in an attempt to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It took a further 13 long years but that document was seen as paving the way for the breakthrough Good Friday agreement of 1998, by which time both FitzGerald and Thatcher were well out of the picture.

The 1985 deal, also known as the Hillsborough Agreement because it was signed in Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland, upset the latter's Unionists because it gave FitzGerald's Irish Republic a say in Northern Ireland's future.

To balance that, it accepted that there would be no change in Northern Ireland's constitution unless a majority of its people agreed to join the republic.

The document was a remarkable achievement for FitzGerald, always seen as a bulwark of integrity rather than using than the guile, cunning and spin now considered an entry qualification for would-be politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Often described as "Garret the Good", "an absent-minded professor", "a dizzy academic" or "the nerds' nerd who made trainspotters look normal", he was also seen as the Mr Nice Guy of Irish politics - "possessing all the legendary Irish charm, but without the blarney", as one writer put it last night.

His often unruly Brillo pad-style hair and gangly gait only added to the image.

Such was his respect among the Irish people, and politicians across the spectrum, that the news of his death in the small hours of Thursday, and the palpable nationwide sense of loss, cast at least a temporary shadow over the Queen's warmly-welcomed conciliation speech made only hours before at Dublin Castle.

Had he not been ill, Fitzgerald would certainly have been present at the monarch's speech, albeit perhaps in unorthodox footware.

In the early 19880s, after a photographer pointed out that he was wearing two different brogues - one brown, one black - during an election campaign, it never occurred to FitzGerald to retort with the classic: "And I've got another pair like this at home."

He simply eyeballed the photographer as though odd shoes were the most normal thing in the world.

His political nemesis, Charles Haughey, thereafter nicknamed FitzGerald "goody-two-shoes". (As things turned out, FitzGerald's first coalition collapsed, by a single vote, over the issue of imposing VAT on children's shoes.

A member and former leader of the Fine Gael party, FitzGerald, whose father had fought and been imprisoned by the British during the 1916 Easter uprising, was Taoiseach at the head of two coalition governments between 1981 and 1987.

A fluent French speaker and passionate Francophile, he was an influential voice in favour of Ireland's entry into the EEC. EEC colleagues recall a French delegate asking him, in the middle of a highly technical speech in French, to slow down.In his early days in office, FitzGerald had to deal with his own nation's response to the highly-publicised hunger strikes by Bobby Sands and other IRA members in the H-Blocks of HM Maze prison at Long Kesh, Northern Ireland, in 1981. He had to walk a difficult tightrope, often criticised by IRA prisoners' families for not showing enough support.

Although he was a lifelong devout Catholic, FitzGerald always worked hard to replace Ireland's "confessional state" with a more pluralist society incorporating both Catholic and Protestant traditions and questioning the Catholic Church's traditional dominance of social policy and moral thought in Ireland.

Although his mother brought him up a devout Catholic for the sake of her husband, she herself was of Ulster Protestant origin and, like her, FitzGerald said he grew up somewhat embarrassed to make the sign of the cross in public.

He therefore found himself, as a child, already straddling the divide he would later, as a politician, seek to narrow.

Outside of his "day-job" in politics, FitzGerald was also a career-long journalist, serving for a time as Dublin correspondent for the Financial Times and Irish contributor to the influential Economist Intelligence Unit.

In his regular economics column in the Irish Times, which he wrote until he fell ill, he was one of the few who issued the warning that all was not well in the Irish economy during the relative glory of the "Celtic Tiger" years.

Although he did not pick up specifically on the wild lending by the nation's banks (who did?), he did point out the enormous discrepancy between apparent growth rates and actual loss of economic productivity.

Garret Michael Desmond FitzGerald was born in Dublin on 9 February, 1926. He attended St Brigid's primary school in Greystones, Co Wicklow, and Belvedere (Jesuits) College in Dublin before gaining a PhD in history and French at the city's University College, where he met his future wife Joan.

His father Desmond, although son of parents from Co Kerry, was actually born in London, where he met his future wife Mabel McConnell, daughter of a Presbyterian Belfast whisky distillery.

Having first eloped to France to escape her father's wrath, the couple moved to Co Kerry in 1913. Neither was a fluent Irish Gaelic speaker, a fact they quickly tried to put right as opposition to British rule grew.

Having joined the Irish Volunteers, Garret's father was arrested and shipped to a prison camp in Wales. With the birth of the Irish Free State, he would be named minister for external affairs, a job his son Garret would also eventually hold half a century later in what became the Irish Republic.Garret FitzGerald began his career as an economist but also worked with the national airline Aer Lingus, where his meticulous study of figures mad him the ideal person for drawing up the airline's timetables - usually on scraps of paper before the advent of modern computer software.

When he left the airline, he once said, he was replaced by four men and a computer.

After joining Fine Gael, he had a term in the Irish Senate before being elected to the lower house, the Dail, in 1969 to represent Dublin South-East, just as the Troubles were erupting to the North. He was elected minister for foreign affairs when his party formed a government in 1973.

After his spells at the head of his party and his coalition governments, Fitzgerald retreated to the backbenches in 1988 and retired from politics in 1992, concentrating on writing.

Always the pro-European, he emerged to campaign for both the Nice Treaty in 2002 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. He wrote several books - notably on economics and the Irish language - as well as an autobiography All in a Life, published in 1991.

Ironically, as an economist, Fitzgerald lost his life savings several years ago after the Guinness Peat Aviation company (GPA), in which he had invested, collapsed with billions of pounds of debts.

Not to be downhearted, in recent years, he organised summer gatherings for family and friends at a rented house in the south of France, where 20 to 30 people would dine at a long table, everyone taking turns to cook, shop, chatter and - in his own tradition - listen and learn.

Garret FitzGerald's wife Joan (ne O'Farrell), whom he married in 1947, died in 1999. He is survived by their sons John and Mark, and daughter Mary.