A man with little vision as to where his country was going
LIAM Cosgrave’s relatively short period as Taoiseach from 1973 to 1977 came to a shuddering end at the infamous general election of 1977. Although he had led the longest-lasting government since World War II, Cosgrave always gave the impression of being a reluctant Taoiseach.
Certainly, he campaigned in 1977 as if he wasn’t too bothered about continuing as Taoiseach. He had a curious political style. Cosgrave went home for his lunch every day, did not let his ministers know his home telephone number on the grounds that they did not need to know it and was known for sometimes perusing the racing pages during Cabinet discussions.
As successive governments over the last 40 years have struggled to maintain any semblance of competence in economic policy-making, much of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs is often placed at the feet of Jack Lynch, Fianna Fáil and their giveaway election manifesto of 1977.
That manifesto was unlike any other in the history of the State. Laden with an array of spending promises, most spectacularly pledging to abolish car tax and local government rates, to mention just the most famous two giveaways, the idea was that pump-priming the economy would achieve significant growth rates and bring about full employment by 1983.
Alas, the manifesto with its extravagant spending proposals, opened up the State to a luxurious crop of special claims from various groups and professions.
Nurses, gardaí, postal workers, telephone operators, Aer Lingus workers and rubbish collectors all found reasons for extra claims over and above the already generous national agreements that were then in existence.
Cosgrave later claimed that his government, and the Fine Gael part of it in particular, had no chance once the Fianna Fáil manifesto was out and he remained proud of the fact that he didn’t engage in the auction politics that was the hallmark of the hucksters in Fianna Fáil.
However, the truth is somewhat more complex. Although Cosgrave announced the dissolution of the Dáil in May 1977, nine months earlier than strictly necessary, for a polling date of June 16, his Fine Gael party was woefully unprepared for the campaign and, unlike Fianna Fáil, didn’t seem to want to do anything in power to make people’s lives better.
Cosgrave’s view, apparently on nothing more than gut instinct, was that an improving economy, with falling inflation and a reasonably well-received budget, portended a favourable outcome.
The Fine Gael members of the Cabinet were split on whether to go for a summer election or wait until the autumn and Richie Ryan, the finance minister, would later claim that Cosgrave plumped for the summer under the influence of the Labour Tánaiste, Brendan Corish.
Something similar, with equally calamitous results, happened to Enda Kenny in 2015, when, at the behest of Joan Burton, he vacillated on calling the election. When he eventually did go to the country in February 2016, both parties did badly.
In 1977 Fine Gael, according to its leading light, Garret FitzGerald, was also worried that, ‘if an election was held over to the autumn, something might go wrong, such as the harvest.’
Deciding on the date by dint of the impact of the weather on the farming community was hardly the most ringing endorsement of the platform Fine Gael would present to the people at the polls.
In essence, Fine Gael as a party had no clear idea of where it should be going and no real idea of what it wanted to do in government if re-elected.
Matters were made worse by the anaemic performance of Richie Ryan, who was Fine Gael’s national director of elections, a job he did not want and at which was not much good.
Cosgrave, although certainly a competent chairman of his Cabinet and a reasonably effective taoiseach, was certainly no natural political campaigner. The woeful Fine Gael performance in 1977 reached its nadir halfway through the campaign, when a strangely disinterested Cosgrave decided not to continue, pleading a bad bout of laryngitis. The reason was that he had nothing very much of interest to say.
In that context, Cosgrave was a quintessential Fine Gael politician. He believed in conservative morals (as in his infamous vote against his own party on contraception) financial probity, the security of the State and not much else.
FIANNA Fáil politicians were much the same. They were equally or even more socially conservative, had a rather more casual attitude to state resources and were more idealistic in their attachment to the unattainable dream of recapturing the fourth green field. Over 55 years after the founding of the State, the nationalist cleavage still dominated politics and was the primary reason people voted as they did. Cosgrave was as much wedded to this cleavage as anyone in the Irish State.
Cosgrave observed a scrupulous approach to the distinction between State and party. In the 1977 election, one of the Fine Gael team, the then UCD economist, Brendan Dowling, discovered that Fine Gael had no photocopier in its election headquarters. Dowling wished to use a government one but Cosgrave, FitzGerald and Ryan were all reluctant to use state machinery for party purposes.
It was only when an official in Finance wised them up that Fianna Fáil would not only use machinery but also staff that Dowling got the go-ahead.
While admirable in many ways, this episode summed up the shambolic nature of the Fine Gael campaign and is an apt metaphor for the performance of Cosgrave as Taoiseach. A man with little vision for where his country was going but who nevertheless did his best. As epitaphs go it’s a bit like the Irish State itself, which he served with pride.