Former High Court president 'one of the finest minds' the country has had

Tue, Jun 7, 2011, 01:00

DECLAN COSTELLO, who has died aged 84, was a former attorney general and president of the High Court. A follower of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, he was the principal author of Fine Gael’s Just Society policy, formally adopted if not wholeheartedly embraced by the party in 1964.

Heralding the policy in a major speech in 1958, he warned that if Irish democracy was not to “collapse in shame and futility”, people who were “prepared to endure the agonies of leadership to bring forth a national policy of dignity and realism” had to be attracted to politics. He stated his belief that Fine Gael should move to the left.

His ideas did not find favour with party leader James Dillon and senior figures such as Gerard Sweetman. But he persevered, and after Fine Gael suffered two byelection defeats in 1964, his proposals, which had a strong social as well as economic dimension, were adopted by that year’s ardfheis.

Born in Dublin in 1926, Costello came from a political background. His father, John A Costello, was attorney general in the government of WT Cosgrave, and served twice as taoiseach, in 1948-51 and 1954-57. His mother was Ida Mary O’Malley, and he was one of four children.

Educated at St Xavier’s School, Donnybrook, he was a winner of the Swift-MacNeill law scholarship, and a graduate in law and economics with first-class honours from University College Dublin.

At UCD he was auditor of the Law Society. He shone at debates and won the Literary and Historical Society medal for oratory. He was also a member of the college golf team.

He went to King’s Inns with every prospect of a bright career, but illness kept him in Switzerland for the period of his law studies. Nevertheless, he passed his Bar finals and qualified at 22; he was called to the Inner Bar in 1965.

He was first elected to the Dáil in 1951 for the constituency of Dublin North West; at 25, he was the youngest member of the Dáil.

At the next election, in 1954, he topped the poll with one-third of the votes cast. Re-elected in 1957, 1961 and 1965, he announced his withdrawal from parliamentary politics in 1969.

Widely tipped for ministerial office in 1954, he was overlooked by his father. He was active on a variety of fronts: in 1951 he called for the de facto acceptance of the Northern Ireland government, and for economic co-operation between north and south.

In 1952 he became chairman of the Irish national committee of the European Youth Campaign, an organisation founded to counteract communism. He was one of the Irish representatives at the consultative assembly of the Council of Europe at Strasbourg. He contributed articles to Studiesand the Tablet.

With like-minded colleagues such as Alexis Fitzgerald and Tom O’Higgins, he established the Fine Gael research and information centre, which argued that since the private sector was not capable of driving economic development, the public sector would have to play a more active role.

Later he was involved in launching the National Observer, a publication devoted to providing informed, unbiased political comment.

Appointed to the Fine Gael front bench in 1957, he proposed a Dáil motion criticising the Irish delegation’s actions at the United Nations. He focused on two issues in particular: the government’s support for the withdrawal of Russian and US forces from Europe, and the support given for the resolution favouring the inclusion of “Communist China” as a member of the UN.

A profile in The Irish Timesnoted: “If to many it seemed that Declan Costello’s opposition to Mr Aiken’s policies was reactionary, his case was based, not on any desire to please the timid pious at home, but on a sincere conviction that the proper aim of Irish policy is a close bond with America. We cannot make it our aim to insult all our potential allies.”

He did not regard the US as being above criticism. In 2006 he wrote in the Irish Law Timesthat the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was illegal and had weakened the power of international law to prevent war.

As a TD he was concerned with securing full employment, decent wages, adequate housing, improved health services and better access to education.

He came to believe in the need for a fundamental change in Irish politics, which belief resulted in the Just Society policy.

His decision to withdraw from politics in 1969 prompted the then Labour TD Michael O’Leary to lament the departure of a “young man of great courage and idealism”.

But John Healy, writing as Backbencher in this newspaper, asserted that Costello would not be a big loss to Fine Gael. “He has been lost to Fine Gael almost from the day Mr Liam Cosgrave took over, reshuffled his deck and left Declan Costello on the fringe of things. Declan Costello deserved better: he did not get it.”

Costello practised at the Bar until the early 1970s. As a barrister he was one of the few Irish specialists in intellectual copyright and patent law.

He successfully defended Seán Bourke, the Limerick man whose extradition was sought by English police for aiding the escape of Soviet spy George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966. In 1972 he defended journalist Kevin O’Kelly, who was charged with contempt of court arising from a radio interview with Provisional IRA leader Seán Mac Stiofáin.

He returned to politics and was elected to the Dáil in 1973, having been invited by Jim Mitchell to stand in Dublin South West. He was appointed attorney general in the Fine Gael-Labour government. In this capacity he established the Law Reform Commission to codify, rationalise and prepare legislation. He separated the offices of attorney general and director of public prosecutions, creating a new role independent of the Executive.

He played a major role in the Sunningdale conference on Northern Ireland, winning the admiration of British opponents for his prosecution of the Irish case, relating to the ill treatment of internees, before the European Commission of Human Rights.

After retiring from politics he was appointed a judge of the High Court in 1977. Two years later he presided over the inquiry into the Whiddy Island disaster. His report in 1980 held two oil companies, Total and Gulf, were responsible for the events when the tanker Betelgueseblew up in Bantry Bay with the loss of 50 lives.

In March 1981 he was presented with an award by the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland for his “outstanding contribution to engineering understanding by a non-engineer” in his report.

In 1983 he was appointed to chair the National Youth Policy Committee, whose members included Bono and Mary Hanafin. The committee reported the following year, calling for the introduction of a national youth service to cater for the social, physical and cultural needs of young people as a matter of urgency.

In 1985 he upheld the dismissal of Eileen Flynn, the single woman sacked from her teaching post at the Holy Faith convent, New Ross, after she gave birth to a son. He supported the nuns’ view that her “conduct was capable of damaging” their efforts to uphold Catholic “norms of behaviour”.

His most controversial judgment was in the X Case in February 1992, when he granted an order to then attorney general Harry Whelehan preventing a 14-year-old girl from travelling to Britain for an abortion. The Supreme Court subsequently lifted the injunction.

In 1995 he was nominated High Court president. On his retirement in 1997, then minister for justice John O’Donoghue said he was “blessed with one of the finest and clearest minds that this country has had the privilege to know”.

A founder and staunch supporter of St Michael’s House, which provides services for people with an intellectual disability, he also was a former chairman of the council of the Catholic Communications Centre.

Some members of the legal profession found him cold and aloof as a judge. But people who knew him from his charity work saw him in a different light. “He is pernickety in the courts. Sometimes he drives barristers and solicitors around the bend. But he is charming, understanding and supportive in his charity work,” the executive of one charity was quoted as saying in 1993.

He enjoyed listening to music, reading, art house cinema and playing tennis.

He is survived by his wife Joan (née Fitzsimons), sons John, Declan, Mark and David and daughters Joan and Caroline.


Declan Costello: born August 1st, 1926; died June 6th, 2011