COS­GRAVE: THE LEGACY Lessons from our tur­bu­lent past

The for­mer Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, who led Ire­land through much of the Trou­bles, was a very pri­vate man, writes Liam Collins

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Front Page -

LIAM Cos­grave, who has died in Dublin at the age of 97, was a for­mer Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach and mem­ber of the ‘old guard’ of the party, which he led from 1965 to 1977.

His fa­ther, Wil­liam Thomas (WT) Cos­grave, was an IRA vol­un­teer, mem­ber of Dublin Cor­po­ra­tion, TD and gov­ern­ment min­is­ter before suc­ceed­ing Arthur Grif­fith as president of the Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil (prime min­is­ter) of the newly cre­ated Ir­ish Free State.

His mother, Louisa Flana­gan, was the daugh­ter of wealthy Dublin busi­ness­man Al­der­man Michael Flana­gan of Portma­hon House in Rialto, Dublin. She was a sis­ter of the well-known Dublin char­ac­ter ‘Bird’ Flana­gan, who was rarely seen other than on his horse and who im­parted his pas­sion for equine mat­ters, from hunt­ing to horse rac­ing, to his young nephew.

Wil­liam Michael Cos­grave (known as Liam) was born on April 13, 1920, the year af­ter his par­ents were mar­ried. At the time, his fa­ther, who was the son of a publi­can in James’s Street, Dublin, was Min­is­ter for Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment in the First Dail and, as a lead­ing IRA fig­ure, had a price on his head.

Along with his younger brother, Michael, the fam­ily lived in Beech Park, a ram­bling Ge­or­gian house in Tem­pleogue, which had been given as a wed­ding present to Louisa by her wealthy fa­ther, who sup­plied much of Dublin city with veg­eta­bles from his mar­ket gar­dens. The orig­i­nal house was burnt down by Repub­li­cans in 1923 dur­ing the Civil War. While his fa­ther was not present, Liam and other mem­bers of the fam­ily wit­nessed the event. WT Cos­grave told the Free­man’s Jour­nal that many valu­able items, in­clud­ing let­ters from Michael Collins and most of the ex­e­cuted 1916 lead­ers, were de­stroyed in the at­tack.

A smaller house was built on the site and WT Cos­grave, and later his son Liam, lived there for the rest of their lives.

Liam Cos­grave at­tended the Chris­tian Broth­ers school in Synge Street and af­ter­wards went to Castle­knock Col­lege as a boarder. In 1934, at the age of 14, his fa­ther and mother, both de­vout Catho- lics, took him to Rome where they had an au­di­ence with Pope Pius XI, which made a huge im­pres­sion on the young Dubliner. In later years, his tra­di­tional Catholic be­liefs would some­times bring him into con­flict with the more lib­eral poli­cies of his own po­lit­i­cal party.

Af­ter com­plet­ing his Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate, he stud­ied Law at Trin­ity Col­lege and en­rolled in the King’s Inns before be­ing called to the Bar. He had al­ready joined Fine Gael at the age of 17 and in 1940, he joined the Free State army as a pri­vate dur­ing the so-called Emer­gency. He was pro­moted to lieu­tenant within a few months and the so­journ gave him a tremen­dous re­spect for the Army and its role in the foun­da­tion and pro­tec­tion of the new Ir­ish State.

Before the 1943 gen­eral elec­tion, he sur­prised his fa­ther by seek­ing and get­ting a Fine Gael nom­i­na­tion to con­test the Dublin County con­stituency. He polled 11,099 votes, se­cur­ing a seat along­side an­other Fine Gael ‘blue blood’, Henry Mor­gan Dock­rell.

The fol­low­ing year, when an­other elec­tion was called, three Fine Gael can­di­dates were nom­i­nated for the same con­stituency, the two sit­ting TDs and Se­na­tor Des­mond FitzGer­ald, a War of In­de­pen­dence vet­eran and fa­ther of Gar­ret FitzGer­ald. In that elec­tion, Cos­grave and Dock­rell were re-elected and FitzGer­ald hu­mil­i­ated, get­ting only 1,978 votes.

‘Bad blood’ be­tween the two men was later blamed on this elec­tion and Gar­ret FitzGer­ald even came to be­lieve that his fa­ther had been ‘un­seated’ by the young Cos­grave. Liam Cos­grave and his fa­ther WT sat in the Dail to­gether for al­most a year. When the Taoiseach Ea­mon de Valera called an­other elec­tion, WT Cos­grave, disil­lu­sioned by pol­i­tics and the Fine Gael party, did not con­test it, hand­ing over the lead­er­ship of Fine Gael to his old IRA com­rade, Richard Mulc­ahy.

Ac­cord­ing to Mulc­ahy’s son Ris­teard, in his book My Fa­ther the Gen­eral, Liam Cos­grave was “one of the few mem­bers of the party to re­alise the im­por­tance of grass roots sup­port” but like his fa­ther, quickly be­came dis­en­chanted by the lethargy of the Fine Gael party and had to be per­suaded not to re­sign from pol­i­tics al­to­gether.

When Dun Laoghaire-Rath­down was estab­lished as a con­stituency in 1948, Liam Cos­grave opted to con­test it and topped the poll, an achieve­ment he would re­peat at every suc­ces­sive elec­tion for the next 30 years un­til his re­tire­ment from pol­i­tics.

Af­ter 16 years in Op­po­si­tion, Fine Gael re­gained power in a coali­tion with Clann na Poblachta. Mulc­ahy was not ac­cept­able to Sean MacBride, leader of the smaller coali­tion party, be­cause of his hard-line stance against Repub­li­cans dur­ing the Civil War and so John A Costello be­came Taoiseach with Mulc­ahy re­main­ing as leader of Fine Gael.

Liam Cos­grave was ap­pointed Chief Whip of Fine Gael, and Sec­re­tary to the First ‘In­ter­party’ gov­ern­ment, a po­si­tion usu­ally held by a civil ser­vant. He took part in the ne­go­ti­a­tions that led to the An­glo-Ir­ish Trade Agree­ment in 1948.

“He was un­usual in that he gained the ad­mi­ra­tion of his de­part­men­tal ser­vants not for any sub­servience to the ex­pert view, but for his sym­pa­thetic but crit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion of their ad­vice,” wrote The Leader. “He was, in fact, much bet­ter than they had ex­pected from such a fledg­ling.”

Sean Le­mass, who would later be­come Taoiseach, was not so kind. “Lacks per­sonal colour and car­ries lit­tle weight,” he said dis­mis­sively.

The gov­ern­ment ended in 1951 with the with­drawal of MacBride over Fine Gael op­po­si­tion to his party’s Mother and Child Scheme and Fianna Fail came back into power in 1951. Liam Cos­grave mar­ried Vera Os­borne, the daugh­ter of well-known horse trainer JW Os­borne, of Crad­dox­town House, Co Kil­dare, on April 18, 1950 and they had three chil­dren. His mother died in 1953 and his fa­ther WT, who had va­cated Beech Park to al­low his son and fam­ily to live there, moved back into the house and re­mained there un­til his death in Novem­ber, 1965.

Fine Gael formed a Sec­ond In­ter­party gov­ern­ment in 1954 un­der Costello, and Liam Cos­grave was ap­pointed Min­is­ter for Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs (now For­eign Af­fairs), a post he held un­til 1957. When Mulc­ahy re­tired as leader of Fine Gael in 1959, the 39-yearold Cos­grave, to the sur­prise of many, went for the lead­er­ship, but was de­feated by vet­eran James Dil­lon.

In the years that fol­lowed, a chasm de­vel­oped in Fine Gael over De­clan Costello’s ‘Just So­ci­ety’ pol­icy, which sought to move Fine Gael to the left in Ir­ish pol­i­tics and which Liam Cos­grave ap­peared to sup­port at first, before re­vert­ing to a more con­ser­va­tive po­si­tion adopted by the older party stal­warts. Dil­lon led the party un­til the 1965 elec­tion but re­signed hours af­ter Le­mass, now leader of Fianna Fail, was re-elected Taoiseach. His sud­den de­par­ture did not give De­clan Costello or his sup­port­ers time to or­gan­ise and, with the sup­port of party heavy­weight Ger­ard Sweet­man, Liam Cos­grave was unan­i­mously elected leader of Fine Gael, to the sur­prise of many.

In 1969, the North of Ire­land ‘Trou­bles’ blew up with the fall-out from the civil rights marches and the hard­line stance adopted against equal rights for the mi­nor­ity Catholic pop­u­la­tion by suc­ces­sive Union­ist lead­ers. In 1970, Liam Cos­grave be­came aware of the plan to im­port arms for the IRA through Dublin Air­port which ap­peared to have the sup­port of Fianna Fail min­is­ters. He put a se­ries of ques­tions to Taoiseach Jack Lynch in the Dail which led to the Arms Cri­sis and the dra­matic sack­ing of three min­is­ters, Micheal O Mo­rain, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, and the res­ig­na­tion of a fourth, Kevin Boland.

In the early stages of his lead­er­ship, Cos­grave and FitzGer­ald ap­peared to have a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship. How­ever, it grad­u­ally de­te­ri­o­rated and by 1972 vir­tu­ally the en­tire par­lia­men­tary party wanted to re­move Cos­grave as leader. He skil­fully used the party’s an­nual Ard Fheis in the City Hall, Cork in May of that year to throw down the gaunt­let to his op­po­nents.

“I don’t know whether some of you do any hunt­ing or not but some of these com­men­ta­tors and crit­ics are now like mon­grel foxes; they are gone to ground and I’ll dig them out and the pack will chop them when they get them,” he said to great ap­plause from the die-hard Fine Gael del­e­gates. It was a clear chal­lenge to FitzGer­ald and it caused up­roar within Fine Gael with “mon­grel foxes” be­ing added to the Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con.

Later that year, Cos­grave and Pa­trick Cooney op­posed the lib­eral wing of their own party by pledg­ing sup­port to vote for the Fianna Fail gov­ern­ment’s in­tro­duc­tion of the Of­fences against the State Act to counter IRA ter­ror­ism. A cri­sis in Fine Gael was averted when, what is pre­sumed to have been a Loy­al­ist bomb, ex­ploded in Dublin on the night of the vote, De­cem­ber 1, killing two CIE work­ers — and the mood of the party and the coun­try changed.

The Dail was dis­solved in Fe­bru­ary 1973 and Cos­grave ham­mered out a pre-elec­tion pact with Labour leader Bren­dan Cor­ish that would put them in gov­ern­ment and al­low him to em­u­late his fa­ther by be­com­ing Taoiseach, a long-held am­bi­tion that looked un­likely ever to be achieved.

True to form, he did not do the ob­vi­ous thing when his Cab­i­net was an­nounced, ap­point­ing Richie Ryan, who had no eco­nomic ex­pe­ri­ence as Min­is­ter for Fi­nance and Gar­ret FitzGer­ald, who had, as Min­is­ter for For­eign Af­fairs. Ac­cept­ing the po­si­tion of Taoiseach, Cos­grave con­cluded: “This gov­ern­ment has been de­scribed as one of many tal­ents, and com­men­ta­tors and in­formed writ­ers all agree that it is a tal­ented team. I need hardly say that I am glad to get a place on it.”

Dur­ing that first year, he led the Ir­ish gov­ern­ment in ne­go­ti­a­tions with Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Ed­ward Heath which re­sulted in the Sun­ning­dale Agree­ment, which pro­vided for a ‘power-shar­ing’ ex­ec­u­tive in the North and a Coun­cil of Ire­land for politi­cians on both sides of the bor­der. Iron­i­cally, Cos­grave was doubt­ful about the agree­ment, be­liev­ing that the Bri­tish side had con­ceded too much too soon to his co-ne­go­tia­tor Gar­ret FitzGer­ald and would not be able to de­liver the terms of the agree­ment. This turned out to be the case. In many ways, the much praised Good Fri­day Agree­ment of 1998 was re­ally a re­drafted ver­sion of this agree­ment and was char­ac­terised by some as ‘Sun­ning­dale for slow learn­ers’.

Liam Cos­grave was an ex­ceed­ingly pri­vate man and did not give his home tele­phone num­ber to some of his min­is­ters, in­clud­ing Gar­ret FitzGer­ald. As Taoiseach, Cos­grave went home to have lunch with his wife Vera al­most every day and did not want to be dis­turbed. If there was a se­ri­ous cri­sis be­tween 1pm and 2pm, mem­bers of the Cab­i­net were ex­pected to go through his pri­vate sec­re­tary who would

con­tact Tem­pleogue Garda Sta­tion who would then send a garda with a mes­sage to his house.

An­other mem­ber of his gov­ern­ment, Peter Barry, would later say he didn’t know any­body who was ever in­vited to Cos­grave’s Beech Park home, a rel­a­tively mod­est bun­ga­low which is still sur­rounded by park­land, an oa­sis among the new hous­ing es­tates of Knock­lyon.

The story is also told that dur­ing one par­tic­u­lar Cab­i­net dis­agree­ment, Cos­grave and the Labour leader, Bren­dan Cor­ish, ad­journed to the Taoiseach’s of­fice to sort out the dis­pute.

As the hours passed and nei­ther emerged from be­hind closed doors, ru­mours be­gan to cir­cu­late that the gov­ern­ment would fall that day. When one per­sis­tent TD burst into the of­fice, he found the two lead­ers hap­pily drink­ing a bot­tle of whiskey and watch­ing the Chel­tenham races.

Even more un­ortho­dox, al­though quite typ­i­cal, was Cos­grave’s stance on con­tra­cep­tive leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced by his own gov­ern­ment in March 1974. At a Cab­i­net meet­ing prior to a bill, in­tro­duced by the Min­is­ter for Jus­tice, Paddy Cooney, Cos­grave would not say which way he in­tended to vote, al­though pressed hard by Labour Min­is­ter Conor Cruise O’Brien. He did, how­ever, in­sist that it must be a ‘free’ vote. The vote was taken on July 16 to al­low for the sale of con­tra­cep­tives through chemist shops ex­clu­sively to mar­ried cou­ples. When the vote was called, Liam Cos­grave voted against his own gov­ern­ment, join­ing with Fianna Fail to de­feat the bill by 75 votes to 61.

He was joined in the No lobby by an­other Fine Gael Min­is­ter, Dick Burke, and five Fine Gael TDs.

Cos­grave was Taoiseach dur­ing some of the worst atroc­i­ties of the Trou­bles, the Dublin and Mon­aghan bombs which killed 34 peo­ple on May 17, 1974, and the as­sas­si­na­tion by the IRA of the Bri­tish Am­bas­sador to Ire­land, Christo­pher Ewart-Biggs on July 21, 1976.

That same year, Cos­grave’s clos­est po­lit­i­cal ally, the Min­is­ter for De­fence, Pa­trick Sars­field ‘Paddy’ Done­gan, called President Cearb­hall O Dalaigh a “thun­der­ing dis­grace” for re­fer­ring the Of­fences against the State Amend­ment Act to the Supreme Court. Done­gan tried to call to Aras an Uachtarain to per­son­ally apol­o­gise for the re­marks, made at a liq­uid lunch in Columb Bar­racks, Mullingar. O Dalaigh re­fused to see him and Done­gan then ten­dered his res­ig­na­tion. Cos­grave re­fused to ac­cept it and O Dalaigh re­signed as president, with Cos­grave re­luc­tantly ac­cept­ing Done­gan’s res­ig­na­tion.

That coali­tion gov­ern­ment and its aus­ter­ity poli­cies were vi­ciously lam­pooned by RTE com­men­ta­tor Frank Hall in Hall’s Pic­to­rial Weekly, with Cos­grave as the ‘Min­is­ter for Hard­ship’ and his Fi­nance Min­is­ter Richie Ryan named ‘Richie Ruin’.

Liam Cos­grave called a gen­eral elec­tion on May 25, 1977, even though the gov­ern­ment could have ruled for an­other year. With typ­i­cal ec­cen­tric­ity, he did not con­sult widely and ap­peared to have no idea of the public mood. An opin­ion poll, which could have in­di­cated the un­pop­u­lar­ity of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, was only com­mis­sioned af­ter the elec­tion was an­nounced.

An ‘auc­tion man­i­festo’ abol­ish­ing rates on do­mes­tic prop­erty and car tax gave Jack Lynch and Fianna Fail a land­slide vic­tory.

Cos­grave re­signed as leader of Fine Gael on July 1, 1977, and was suc­ceeded by Gar­ret FitzGer­ald. He did not con­test his seat in Dun Laoghaire-Rath­down at the next elec­tion in 1981 but was suc­ceeded by his son, Liam T Cos­grave.

Liam Cos­grave was just as un­com­pro­mis­ing out of of­fice as in it. He main­tained a dig­ni­fied si­lence on po­lit­i­cal is­sues for the re­main­der of his long life and gave no in­ter­views. He did make one self-dep­re­cat­ing public ap­pear­ance at a book launch at which he dis­played a dead­pan wit and im­pec­ca­ble de­liv­ery. If he har­boured grudges, he kept them to him­self and re­fused to write his mem­oirs.

Dur­ing his re­tire­ment, he con­tin­ued to pur­sue his pas­sion for horse rac­ing and even close to the end of his life, was to be found sit­ting qui­etly in a cor­ner of the pa­rade ring at the race­course, par­tic­u­larly Leop­ard­stown, study­ing the form and mind­ing his own busi­ness.

He would ac­cept greet­ings from well-wish­ers with a po­lite smile, a nod or a hand­shake, but al­most im­me­di­ately re­turn to his race card and anonymity.

His wife Vera died in 2016 at the age of 90.

Liam Cos­grave, who had been ill in Tal­laght Hos­pi­tal for some time, is sur­vived by his daugh­ter Mary, who worked for Bord Failte, his son Liam T Cos­grave, who lost his Dail seat in 1987, end­ing the fam­ily’s long po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tion with the Dun Laoghaire-Rath­down con­stituency, and his other son, Ciaran.

THE LAW AND OR­DER TAOISEACH: Liam Cos­grave. Photo: Frank McGrath

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