Cosgrave was of an era when politicians were in history books, and not gossip columns
SOME months ago, chatting in a Dublin restaurant to a couple of colleagues, both senior political correspondents, an elderly man passed our table. He acknowledged me, and I him; I turned to my companions to say Martin O’Donoghue had just left, only to be met with blank stares.
The first minister for Economic Planning, a hugely controversial figure in his time, dumped by Charlie Haughey at the centre of a scandal that brought down a Garda chief – all, it seemed, forgotten. I recount this not to fault my younger colleagues, but it brought home to me forcefully that we live in an age that is largely ahistoric, with a focus on the here and now and the ephemeral in politics. Liam Cosgrave, however, was a reminder of that earlier time, when politicians were more likely to end up in the history books than the gossip columns.
His death is a reminder of the painful birth pangs of this State, and the more recent threats that his government had to contend with. I was at college in the 1970s and I vividly remember how active supporters of the Provisional IRA were in UCD. I recall Mr Cosgrave visiting Belfield, and the riot when northern students overturned his police car. Given all that was going on at the time, it virtually passed unnoticed. Those were times when every minister had an armed escort, when the Army protected public buildings, and even the studios at RTÉ had a resident Special Branch detective. That distant thunder north of the Border seemed very close then.
It’s hard to comprehend now but, in the years of the Cosgrave government, 1,213 men, women and children lost their lives in a conflict that, to many at this remove, seems almost pointless.
Liam Cosgrave knew all this and had, as we all know, strong views on what should have been done at the time. As he told me privately more than once, he had urged the British to intern Paisley, whom he regarded understandably as a totally malign influence. In retrospect, perhaps it is as well that his advice wasn’t heeded.
He can be forgiven too for allowing his fierce loyalty to the institutions that protected the State lead him into errors of judgment – not sacking Paddy Donegan for instance, and dismissing talk of Garda misbehaviour, because he remembered: he remembered the death of Kevin O’Higgins; he remembered the acrid smell of destruction after his family home was torched; he remembered a time when the State itself had been in jeopardy.
He remembered too, with pinpoint recall, episodes throughout his long life. When he launched my then colleague David McCullagh’s biography of Jack Costello, he mesmerised his audience with a 45-minute tour de force of recollection. It’s a shame he will not be around to give his verdict on David’s magisterial biography of his great adversary when the first volume of his life of
De Valera is published this month.
Mr Cosgrave took a keen interest in public life to the very end. A couple of years ago, he attended the launch of a seminar on the War of Independence in the Midlands, organised by the Old Athlone Society. It was to be held in Custume Barracks and had the enthusiastic support of the Army, hence his presence (along with former taoiseach Bertie Ahern).
There to launch the event was the late, and greatly lamented, Judge Adrian Hardiman. Afterwards Mr Cosgrave took the judge aside for a word and an astonished Mr Hardiman told me Mr Cosgrave had wanted to thank him for his part in a judgment which Mr Hardiman himself regarded as obscure, but which nonetheless had been of assistance to his son Liam who was then involved in Tribunalrelated litigation. He missed very little right up to the end.
When a 97-year-old public figure dies, the tributes can understandably be trite and formulaic, but this week they have rung true. One of the most impressive came from Micheál Martin. The Fianna Fáil leader praised his ‘resilience, his integrity and his strength of character’. He had been ‘a link to the foundation events of the State and to one of its founding fathers WT Cosgrave’. It was a generous acknowledgment that more, much more, than others who made the claim – Mr Cosgrave did the State some service.