The truth about Liam Cosgrave’s alleged gaffe at the UN

Anecdote about General Assembly address is one of most enduring in political history

Former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave  in front of a photograph of his father WT Cosgrave: UN speech won widespread praise. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in front of a photograph of his father WT Cosgrave: UN speech won widespread praise. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

A supposed gaffe in Liam Cosgrave’s address to the United Nations in 1956 has formed the basis of one of the most enduring anecdotes of Irish political history but, like all the best stories, it appears to be apocryphal.

According to political folklore, Cosgrave embarrassed himself and his country by calling on the Muslims and Jews to settle their differences like Christians. The latest volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy 1951-1957, due to be published this week, indicates that far from committing a diplomatic gaffe, Cosgrave made a widely lauded speech which reflected very well on Ireland as a new and independent voice in international relations.

Ireland was only admitted to the UN at the end of 1955 and Cosgrave’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in November 1956 was the first opportunity for the Irish State to voice its opinion on international affairs.

The speech was delivered in the wake of the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and Cosgrave tackled these issues head on. He condemned the Anglo-French intervention in Egypt and issued an appeal to Israel and Egypt to agree a peaceful solution.

“Now a Western country which has undergone foreign rule has, perhaps, a claim to understand something of the psychology of the two sides of the Middle East disputes. I hope, therefore, that without offence and without presumption I may address an appeal to both contestants,” he said.

Cosgrave wound up his speech by suggesting the Anglo-French intervention should incite UN member states not to vain recriminations but “to renewed efforts under Divine Providence to adjust our differences – the differences that divide the free world – by rational negotiation in a spirit of Christian charity”.

Garbled version

In later years, former department of external affairs official Conor Cruise O’Brien claimed that Cosgrave had, at the end of his speech, called on Jews and Arabs “to solve their differences on Christian principles”. This anecdote entered the Irish political folklore and has been regarded as gospel.

It was taken seriously because not only did Cruise O’Brien attend the UN with Cosgrave, but he drafted the minister’s much-lauded speech.

However, the anecdote appears to have emanated from a garbled version of Cosgrave’s final paragraph which the minister insisted on putting into the speech himself.

In his report back to the department, the then Irish ambassador to the UN, Frederick Boland, made no reference to a gaffe by Cosgrave.

“No speech during the debate received anything like the reception accorded to the Minister’s. The volume of applause at its conclusion was really remarkable and delegates crowded around the Minister from all sides to congratulate him and express approval of his speech,” wrote Boland.

He said that even the British, who did not approve of some of the sentiments in the speech, sent back a report to the Foreign Office in which they described it as “a magnificent performance.”

‘Inadequate idea’

The Peruvian ambassador described the speech as “the best he had heard in the United Nations Assembly in 10 years” and had sent a telegram to the minister in Dublin informing him of that.

The speech was widely reported in the British and US media but Boland said Irish newspapers had given “an inadequate idea of the impression which the speech made”.

The full text of the speech, which set out a strong independent and internationalist tone and condemned the use of force and the flouting of the UN charter by member states to which Ireland had close ties, is contained in the volume.

Cosgrave also criticised colonialism but urged Egypt and other African states to recognise the nature of Soviet imperialism and to resist the temptation to be drawn into communist conspiracies.

During his three weeks at the UN in New York, Cosgrave also wrote a series of letters to then taoiseach John A Costello. In one of them, he told of an approach by South African minister for foreign affairs Eric Louw asking that Ireland should not support an attempt to put apartheid on the agenda for discussion at the UN.

Cosgrave wrote: “We have since considered this and decided that we would have to vote against them as the South African Government’s attitude on the matter is entirely opposed to Catholic teaching.”