Liam Cos­grave 1920-2017

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Editor: Mark Hen­nessy October 5th, 2017 Liam Cos­grave was an un­com­pro­mis­ing and of­ten con­tro­ver­sial po­lit­i­cal fig­ure. His record as taoiseach be­tween 1973 and 1977 was mixed, but he can be cred­ited with two out­stand­ing achieve­ments dur­ing his term of of­fice.

The first was to en­sure that the demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions of the State sur­vived the big­gest as­sault on their le­git­i­macy since the Civil War in the shape of the cam­paign of vi­o­lence waged by the Pro­vi­sional IRA.

The sec­ond was to demon­strate that it was pos­si­ble for Fine Gael to pro­vide the lead­er­ship of an al­ter­na­tive gov­ern­ment in the face of the Fianna Fáil mono­lith which had dom­i­nated the pol­i­tics of the State since 1932.

Ire­land was a very dif­fer­ent coun­try when Cos­grave be­came taoiseach in 1973. By the time he left of­fice for good 40 years ago, after a sav­age gen­eral elec­tion de­feat, he al­ready looked and sounded to many peo­ple like a politi­cian from an ear­lier age.

He did not pos­sess the more ob­vi­ous at­tributes of the suc­cess­ful Ir­ish politi­cian and was never an easy man of the peo­ple like so many TDs then and now. His very or­di­nar­i­ness was his most strik­ing fea­ture yet he showed great po­lit­i­cal courage and calm at times of cri­sis.


Mod­est, droll, pi­ous, po­lit­i­cally cun­ning but ut­terly lack­ing flam­boy­ance, Cos­grave pos­sessed a self-re­liance and strength of char­ac­ter that made him a re­silient and suc­cess­ful politi­cian even if he never won the kind of pop­u­lar­ity achieved by his great po­lit­i­cal ri­val Jack Lynch of Fianna Fáil.

He was al­ways con­scious of the po­lit­i­cal legacy of his fa­ther, WT Cos­grave, who led the in­de­pen­dent State for the first decade of its ex­is­tence. That fu­elled his de­ter­mi­na­tion to pro­tect the in­sti­tu­tions of the State at what­ever po­lit­i­cal cost.

Elected Fine Gael leader in 1965, he sto­ically took the gen­eral elec­tion de­feat in 1969 in his stride and was de­ter­mined to solider on de­spite mut­ter­ings from the so­called Young Tigers in the party who re­garded him as too con­ser­va­tive and lack­ing in charisma.

Some years ago one of his suc­ces­sors as taoiseach, John Bru­ton – who was one of those Young Tigers – summed up his pre­de­ces­sor’s ap­proach to power: “Liam Cos- grave had a very strong sense of what this State had achieved since 1921. In cer­tain senses in his own phys­i­cal pres­ence he em­bod­ied the flinty in­tegrity that cre­ated this State.”

He came within hours of be­ing de­posed as party leader in De­cem­ber 1972 when he made no se­cret of his de­ter­mi­na­tion to back the Of­fences Against the State Bill in­tro­duced by the Fianna Fáil gov­ern­ment to com­bat the grow­ing threat of the IRA.


He re­mained res­o­lute de­spite the fact that the ma­jor­ity of his par­lia­men­tary party in­tended to vote against the Bill and it looked as if there was no way he could sur­vive as party leader. How­ever, just hours be­fore a cru­cial Dáil vote the first loy­al­ist bombs went off in Dublin and his TDs scut­tled back to sup­port his stance.

Just three months later, he was taoiseach, pre­sid­ing over “a gov­ern­ment of all the tal­ents” in the shape of a Fine GaelLabour coali­tion which con­tained in­tel­lec­tual fig­ures such as Gar­ret FitzGer­ald and Conor Cruise O’Brien.

There was con­sid­er­able sus­pi­cion of Cos­grave on the left wing of the Labour Party be­fore the gov­ern­ment was formed, but he proved to be the per­fect coali­tion leader es­tab­lish­ing a warm and trust­ing re­la­tion­ship with Labour leader Bren­dan Cor­ish.

The pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence of in­ter­party govern­ments be­tween 1948 and 1957 had widely dis­cred­ited the con­cept of coali­tion, but Cos­grave’s achieve­ment was to prove that they could work. That paved the way for a suc­ces­sion of coali­tion govern­ments over the fol­low­ing decades.

His gov­ern­ment ini­ti­ated a whole se­ries of re­forms in the ar­eas of wel­fare, tax­a­tion and house­build­ing. Com­ing into of­fice against the back­drop of a hous­ing cri­sis the min­is­ter for lo­cal gov­ern­ment, Jimmy Tully, ini­ti­ated a build­ing pro­gramme that re­sulted in 30,000 units a year be­ing built.

Wel­fare rates were in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly with the in­tro­duc­tion for the first time of the sin­gle-par­ent al­lowance and min­is­ter for fi­nance Richie Ryan in­tro­duced a con­tro­ver­sial wealth tax.

Oil cri­sis

How­ever, the gov­ern­ment’s re­form pro­gramme was com­pro­mised by the oil cri­sis of 1974 which re­quired a steep in­crease in tax­a­tion. That eroded its pop­u­lar­ity with Ryan be­ing dubbed “Richie Ruin” by RTÉ’s satir­i­cal pro­gramme Hall’s Pic­to­rial Weekly.

Cos­grave him­self was at the cen­tre of an­other po­lit­i­cally dam­ag­ing episode when he voted against his own gov­ern­ment’s at­tempt to le­galise con­tra­cep­tion. There was gen­eral con­ster­na­tion when he and a small group of Fine Gael TDs voted against the Fam­ily Plan­ning Bill in­tro­duced by min­is­ter for jus­tice Pa­trick Cooney. Cos­grave was a pi­ous Catholic and he sim­ply could not con­tem­plate vot­ing against the dic­tates of his church.

What is of­ten over­looked is that the gov­ern­ment had agreed from the be­gin­ning to have a free vote on the is­sue while the Fian- 1943 Liam Cos­grave was elected to the Dáil for Dublin County at the age of 23 while serv­ing as an Army of­fi­cer dur­ing the Emer­gency. The move sur­prised his own fam­ily and caused even greater sur­prise in the house­hold of Des­mond FitzGer­ald (fa­ther of Gar­ret) who had been a TD for the con­stituency and har­boured am­bi­tions of re­gain­ing it.

The sub­se­quent poor re­la­tions be­tween Cos­grave and Gar­ret FitzGer­ald may be traced back to this event.

The young Cos­grave was a mem­ber of the Dáil along­side his fa­ther for a year and was re-elected in 1944. In 1948, he was ap­pointed as chief whip to the first in­ter­party gov­ern­ment and also served in an un­usual role for a politi­cian as sec­re­tary to the gov­ern­ment. He was ap­pointed min­is­ter for foreign af­fairs in the 1954-1957 in­ter­party gov­ern­ment 1965 He was elected leader of Fine Gael in suc­ces­sion to James Dil­lon. He failed to win power in 1969 mainly be­cause of Labour’s re­jec­tion of coali­tion. In 1970 he played a crit­i­cal role in the de­vel­op­ment of the arms cri­sis by go­ing to taoiseach Jack Lynch with de­tails of the ac­tiv­i­ties of Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney. The two min­is­ters were fired later that night.

Two years later, with Cos­grave hav­ing failed to cap­i­talise on Fianna Fáil dis­ar­ray, in­ter­nal dis­si­dents be­came in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient with his lead­er­ship. Cos­grave made a fa­mous speech to his party’s ardfheis in May 1972 dub­bing them “mon­grel foxes”. They came after him again in De­cem­ber of that year but loy­al­ist bombs in Dublin forced them to re­con­sider. 1973 Cos­grave be­came taoiseach after a deal with Labour leader Bren­dan Cor­ish on a joint elec­tion man­i­festo when Jack Lynch called an early elec­tion.

Cos­grave sur­prised Labour after the elec­tion by of­fer­ing the party five min­is­te­rial posts, rather than the four they were ex­pect­ing on the ba­sis of Dáil strength. That ce­mented a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship which sur­vived de­spite in­tense pres­sure over the fol­low­ing four years. na Fáil op­po­si­tion im­posed the whip against the mea­sure. The re­sult was the de­feat of the first at­tempt to leg­is­late for what was then a con­tentious is­sue.

The big­gest prob­lem faced by that gov­ern­ment was the ap­palling vi­o­lence which de­stroyed so many lives on both sides of the Bor­der. Cos­grave was im­pla­ca­bly op­posed to the cam­paign be­ing waged by the Pro­vi­sional IRA and used all the avail­able re­sources of the State to try and con­tain it.

On the po­lit­i­cal front his gov­ern­ment pur­sued an ac­com­mo­da­tion with the Bri­tish and the union­ists which re­sulted in the Sun­ning­dale Agree­ment which pro­vided for a pow­er­shar­ing Ex­ec­u­tive in North­ern Ire­land and a Coun­cil of Ire­land. Al­though it ul­ti­mately ended in fail­ure, it pro­vided the tem­plate for the Belfast Agree­ment more than 20 years later.

“Sun­ning­dale for slow learn­ers” was how SDLP deputy leader Séa­mus Mal­lon char­ac­terised the 1998 agree­ment.

Po­lit­i­cal er­ror

1974 Cos­grave shocked the coun­try and his own col­leagues by vot­ing against his own gov­ern­ment’s fam­ily plan­ning Bill. He had re­mained silent dur­ing cab­i­net dis­cus­sions on the con­tents of the Bill, but re­marked when the de­ci­sion to have a free vote was made by min­is­ters: “Re­mem­ber a free vote is a free vote.” Most of them didn’t take the hint and there was con­ster­na­tion when the Bill was de­feated by 75 votes to 61. There was in­ter­na­tional baf­fle­ment at the vote and the gov­ern­ment’s cred­i­bil­ity took a hit.

The col­lapse of the Sun­ning­dale agree­ment in 1974 was an­other set­back and Cos­grave never for­gave the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter, Edward Heath, for ca­pit­u­lat­ing to the loy­al­ists. In the years that fol­lowed, the IRA and loy­al­ist gangs com­mit­ted mur­ders, bomb­ings and kid­nap­pings in the Re­pub­lic pro­vok­ing an un­flinch­ing re­sponse from Cos­grave. 1976 The in­sult to pres­i­dent Cearb­hall Ó Dálaigh by min­is­ter for de­fence Paddy Done­gan who called him “a thun­der­ing His de­tes­ta­tion of IRA vi­o­lence prompted Cos­grave to make a se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal er­ror when he stood by his min­is­ter for de­fence Paddy Done­gan after he had in­sulted pres­i­dent Cearb­hall Ó Dálaigh, de­scrib­ing him as “a thun­der­ing dis­grace”.

Fol­low­ing the mur­der of the Bri­tish am- dis­grace” and the sub­se­quent res­ig­na­tion of the pres­i­dent in 1976 was a dam­ag­ing episode for Cos­grave, who ap­peared un­con­cerned at the in­sult to the pres­i­dent and in­stead stood by his er­rant min­is­ter. 1977 In spite of all the set­backs, the gov­ern­ment par­ties won a se­ries of by­elec­tions, in­clud­ing the vic­tory of Enda Kenny in Mayo, so Cos­grave was in a con­fi­dent mood when he called a gen­eral elec­tion in May 1977.

It was only after the Dáil had been dis­solved that Fine Gael com­mis­sioned an opin­ion poll. It showed that the Fianna Fáil op­po­si­tion was on course to win a mas­sive vic­tory but Cos­grave cam­paigned sto­ically right to the end. In the af­ter­math of de­feat he gen­er­ously de­scribed his vic­to­ri­ous op­po­nent Jack Lynch as “the most pop­u­lar Ir­ish politi­cian since Daniel O’Con­nell”. bas­sador to Ire­land, Christo­pher EwartBiggs, Ó Dálaigh re­ferred emer­gency leg­is­la­tion to the Supreme Court de­spite the unan­i­mous ad­vice of the Coun­cil of State that the Bill was con­sti­tu­tional. Cos­grave was deeply up­set by the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion and al­lowed his views to cloud his po­lit­i­cal judg­ment.

His gov­ern­ment went down to a crush­ing de­feat in the gen­eral elec­tion of 1977 for a com­bi­na­tion of rea­sons. The tough mea­sures needed to pro­tect the econ­omy, the Ó Dálaigh af­fair and the Fianna Fáil give­away man­i­festo which bankrupted the coun­try in the fol­low­ing years all con­trib­uted to the scale of the de­feat.

Cos­grave stepped down im­me­di­ately after the elec­tion, to the con­ster­na­tion of many of his own sup­port­ers in Fine Gael, and he was suc­ceeded by his great in­ter­nal ri­val Gar­ret FitzGer­ald.

Since then, he kept a self-im­posed vow of silence on po­lit­i­cal devel­op­ments, be­liev­ing it would be de­mean­ing and in­ap­pro­pri­ate for him com­ment.

He dili­gently at­tended Coun­cil of State meet­ings and was eas­ily the long­est-serv­ing mem­ber of that body, re­main­ing on it for 44 years.

‘‘ Cos­grave was at the cen­tre of an­other po­lit­i­cally dam­ag­ing episode when he voted against his own gov­ern­ment’s at­tempt to le­galise con­tra­cep­tion

Stephen Collins is the au­thor of The Cos­grave Legacy, which charts the po­lit­i­cal ca­reers of WT and Liam Cos­grave

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