The Republic of Ireland is in special need of strong leadership - both to lift the country out of its severe economic problems and to find a way to reconcilation in Northern Ireland. This is why the defeat of the Garret FitzGerald government in Parliament will dismay the country's friends and well-wishers abroad. In only a short time in office Prime Minister FitzGerald has proven to be a statesman of uncommon vision both in dealing with the economy and in pursuing Irish peace.
It was an austere economic program which brought him down. Ireland during the 1970s experienced a heady period of economic boom as a new member of the European Economic Community. But the previous administration in Dublin, instead of using gains to build up the nation's infrastructure, began borrowing wildly in order to maintain the standard of living. As a result, Ireland today is deeply in debt; in addition, unemployment stands at 11 percent and inflation is at a high 23 percent.
Mr. FitzGerald, an economist, knew well what had to be done and set about doing it, calling for steep new taxes to help pay off the debt. Unfortunately, his minority coalition was defeated in Parliament because of the loss of one independent socialist vote.
The question now is whether Mr. FitzGerald and his Fine Gael Party can pick up enough new support in the election in February to return to Parliament with the majority strength needed to carry out his program. It could be tough going. Mr. FitzGerald will no doubt want to campaign on the root economic issues, but the danger is that fanatical republican elements will try to bring the emotional border and Ulster issues to the fore and inflame public feelings, as they have done in previous elections.
It is to be hoped that the people of Ireland will not allow themselves to be distracted by flag-waving politics. Their country's long-range national interest lies in the kind of bold, conciliatory policies which Prime Minister FitzGerald has been pursuing - on the diplomatic as well as economic front. In establishing a working dialogue with Britain, in searching for a new initiative that would restructure the government in Northern Ireland, and in trying to make Catholic Ireland itself less sectarian, Mr. FitzGerald has embarked on a road promising eventual resolution of the burning conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Can the people of Ireland afford not to give Mr. FitzGerald a stronger mandate?