Cos­grave cast a con­stant cold eye on the IRA en­emy

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis - Har­ris Eoghan Har­ris

LIAM Cos­grave’s po­lit­i­cal credo, like his fa­ther’s, was salus pop­uli suprema lex: the safety of the peo­ple is the supreme law.

In prac­tice this meant pro­tect­ing the State from the IRA, and he was never slow to use its ini­tials.

So why the pussy­foot­ing around the term “IRA” by both Leo Varad­kar in his Dail trib­ute, and David McCul­lagh in his Prime Time pro­file?

Nei­ther Varad­kar nor McCul­lagh spec­i­fied the Pro­vi­sional IRA, or IRA, by name, pre­fer­ring eu­phemisms about se­cu­rity.

This missed out on the need to ed­u­cate a new gen­er­a­tion to name and shame the IRA and its po­lit­i­cal de­fend­ers.

Liam Cos­grave had no in­hi­bi­tions about nam­ing the IRA, not least be­cause it had shad­owed his en­tire life.

In 1923, Liam was a child when an IRA gang burnt his fam­ily home — he never for­got the smell of burn­ing wood.

In 1970, he thwarted a plan to arm the Pro­vi­sional IRA by alert­ing the Taoiseach Jack Lynch.

In 1972, he was ready to defy the ma­jor­ity of his party and vote for Des O’Mal­ley’s anti-IRA mea­sures even if it cost him the lead­er­ship.

Above all, in March 1974, he and his gov­ern­ment were in­deli­bly marked by the IRA’s sec­tar­ian mur­der of Se­na­tor Billy Fox.

Fox, a pop­u­lar young Protes­tant na­tion­al­ist and ris­ing Fine Gael politi­cian in Mon­aghan, was mak­ing one of his reg­u­lar Mon­day night vis­its to his girl­friend, Mar­jorie Coul­son, at her par­ents’ fam­ily farm.

A 13-man IRA gang had ear­lier in­vaded the house, ter­rorised her fam­ily and in a black fit of big­otry thrown the fam­ily bi­ble in the fire.

As Fox ar­rived, the IRA gang shot him dead and then burned the farm­house.

John Bru­ton re­calls gazing down at Fox’s body in his open cof­fin and re­solv­ing to re­sist am­biva­lence about the IRA.

The pun­dits who were so sniffy last week about the tough meth­ods of the al­leged Garda “heavy gang” lack his­tor­i­cal em­pa­thy with the hor­ror evoked by the Fox mur­der.

That’s be­cause Se­na­tor Fox was the only mem­ber of the Oireach­tas to be mur­dered by the IRA since the killing of Kevin O’Hig­gins in 1927.

As leader of Fine Gael, Varad­kar should have re­called its trau­matic ef­fect on the Cos­grave gov­ern­ment of 1973-77, saluted Fox’s mem­ory, and ex­co­ri­ated the IRA gang.

These hard touch re­minders are needed to alert a new gen­er­a­tion about the IRA cam­paign which Gerry Adams still de­fends.

In his grudg­ing Dail re­sponse, Adams could not even pro­nounce the name Cos­grave prop­erly — it came out as “Cos­grove”.

But Leo Varad­kar, in his Dail trib­ute, twice avoided the spe­cific term ‘Pro­vi­sional IRA’ in favour of the catch-all term “ter­ror­ism”.

“Con­sis­tently op­posed to all vi­o­lence, Liam Cos­grave was a coura­geous voice against ter­ror­ism, and pro­tected the State in times of cri­sis. He looked ter­ror­ism in the eye and did not flinch.”

Con­trast this with Micheal Martin’s spe­cific nam­ing of names:

“As Taoiseach, his gov­ern­ment faced the ris­ing im­pact of the il­le­git­i­mate cam­paigns of the Pro­vi­sional IRA and loy­al­ists.”

Bren­dan Howlin, too, did not set­tle for blurry pieties about Cos­grave’s de­fence of state in­sti­tu­tions.

“Lest we for­get, those in­sti­tu­tions were un­der di­rect and vi­o­lent at­tack from the IRA of that time.”

David McCul­lagh’s Prime Time pro­file of Cos­grave echoed Varad­kar’s vague­ness. No men­tion of the mur­der of Fox and, more strik­ingly, no men­tion of the Pro­vi­sional IRA.

This omis­sion was all the more strik­ing be­cause Cos­grave made one of his most pun­gent at­tacks on the IRA when launch­ing McCul­lagh’s bi­og­ra­phy of John A Costello in 2010.

“Costello dis­liked emer­gency leg­is­la­tion. He was for the ordinary courts. Some of us were more dis­posed, I think, to the military court, be­cause it was ef­fec­tive, and in a lot of re­spects re­minded me of the mo di­reach.”

The Taoiseach’s fail­ure to fo­cus on the IRA came a day af­ter some jolly Dail ex­changes be­tween Varad­kar and Adams.

In bouts of what I call belly-rub­bing, Varad­kar and Adams ex­changed nods and becks and wreathed smiles.

Bren­dan Howlin, who re­fused to join the fake jol­lity, reached some in­ter­est­ing con­clu­sions about the belly-rub­bing as re­ported by John Down­ing in last Wed­nes­day’s Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent.

Cov­er­ing Labour’s launch of its al­ter­na­tive bud­get, Down­ing re­ported on Howlin’s views about the shape of the next coali­tion.

Asked about future coali­tions, Howlin in­sisted “you could not rule out any party do­ing busi­ness with any other party”.

Howlin went on to say that re­cent sur­veys sug­gested a Fine Gael-Sinn Fein coali­tion was more likely than Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein.

He fin­ished with this flat state­ment: “I’ve heard Micheal Martin rule it out with more con­vic­tion that Leo Varad­kar has.”

This puts an even sharper point on my ques­tion. Why the Taoiseach and RTE’s baf­fling re­luc­tance to re­call that Cos­grave never took his cold eye from the IRA?

Could it have come from the cul­ture of “let’s move on”, a mis­placed de­sire not to drag up stuff that might cast a shadow on the “peace process”?

But the Taoiseach and McCul­lagh were not the only ones who failed to fol­low up on Cos­grave’s life-long fo­cus on the IRA.

Many of the trib­utes to Cos­grave told you more about the pon­tif­i­cat­ing pun­dits than they did about Cos­grave.

Some shame­lessly ran­sacked Stephen Collins’s book, The Cos­grave Legacy, with­out at­tri­bu­tion, for their re­cy­cled false mem­o­ries, yet still passed over the Provos.

Rather than re­cy­cle an­other anec­dote from Stephen Collins’s looted gold­mine, I will of­fer only a few mod­est ob­ser­va­tions.

First, many pun­dits who didn’t cog from Collins, bor­rowed their sto­ries from Conor Cruise O’Brien’s mem­oirs.

But they failed to men­tion the deep ad­mi­ra­tion The Cruiser de­vel­oped for Cos­grave.

The Cruiser came into pol­i­tics with the leftie line that Cos­grave was just a re­ac­tionary con­ser­va­tive.

But he had the moral courage to change his mind, and ac­cept that Cos­grave was the right man to re­spond to the ter­ror­ist cam­paign waged by those The Cruiser called “the Seven Samu­rai of the Army Coun­cil”.

To my shame it took me an­other year before I fol­lowed The Cruiser into the camp of Cos­grave fans where I have stayed since.

Along the way, as a small trib­ute to Cos­grave, I stopped us­ing the term “con­ser­va­tive” as an abu­sive ad­jec­tive.

Sec­ond, I much en­joyed Micheal Martin and Ea­mon Ryan’s riff on Cos­grave’s in­creas­ingly en­dan­gered Dublin ac­cent.

As Martin re­marked: “It is hard not to be struck by how his was a dis­tinct ac­cent, one which is now quite rare.”

Dur­ing my time in RTE, I tried to mas­ter that abra­sive ac­cent so as to im­press the Hall’s Pic­to­rial team down the cor­ri­dor.

Like Sean Le­mass’s voice, Cos­grave’s gritty ca­dences, evok­ing the sea with­draw­ing slowly over a peb­bled shore, was the sound of in­tegrity.

‘Adams did not even pro­nounce the name Cos­grave prop­erly. It came out as “Cos­grove”’

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