Costello: the forgotten taoiseach


BIOGRAPHY: JOHN BRUTONreviews The Reluctant Taoiseach: A Biography of John A Costello, By David McCullagh, Gill and Macmillan, 530pp, €27.99

JOHN A COSTELLO of Fine Gael was the pioneer of interparty or coalition government in Ireland. His modest and endearing personality was crucial in making his two governments work. His first consisted of five parties and relied for support on a number of independent TDs as well. His second consisted of only two parties, but it relied for support on a third party and also on numerous independents.

Although a combative advocate in public, he had a remarkable lack of partisanship in his personal relations. He was considerate toward colleagues, some of whom were difficult people.

He had taken no part in the War of Independence and was thus relatively unaffected by the Civil War split. This enabled him to work with people like Seán Mac Bride, who came from the anti-Treaty side.

As a lawyer during the 1930s he had represented trade-union interests and as a TD he had defended the pension and other rights of civil servants transferred from the British service into that of the Free State. Both activities involved close co-operation with the man who was later to become his tánaiste, Bill Norton. Their mutual respect held two governments together.

The involvement of Labour in his first government was not to be taken for granted. Labour had, after all, supported Fianna Fáil in 1932, and, because of a split in the trade-union movement, there were two Labour parties in 1948.

John A Costello was a native of Phibsborough and the son of a civil servant at the Registry of Deeds whose family came from Clare. He was educated in O’Connell’s School, which Seán Lemass and Seán T O’Kelly also attended. He then went to University College Dublin, and, like James Joyce, he tried and failed to become auditor of the Literary and Historical Society.

When he qualified as a barrister, in 1914, he had no family legal connections. He made up for this with hard work and a talent for appealing to the feelings of jurors. He was so successful he was invited to become attorney General in WT Cosgrave’s government in 1926, at the age of 35.

He was first elected to the Dáil in 1933 and remained a member until 1969. Except when he was taoiseach he combined Dáil service with an active career as a barrister. This led to criticism of his Dáil attendance, but it enriched the quality of his contributions to debates, especially on the 1937 Constitution. His legal reputation was such that de Valera offered him the post of chief justice at one time.

This biography by David McCullagh, RTÉ’s political correspondent, is an original contribution to the writing of modern Irish history. It is authoritative in its judgments and careful in its research. It is sympathetic – even affectionate – towards its subject. The book is easy to follow, and the author draws on his intimate knowledge of current politics to place Costello in a context relevant to modern Ireland. It is also full of colourful detail about the politics of the time.

Costello’s economic record comes in for criticism. The Irish economy fell behind during the 1950s. Growth was less than in other European countries. Costello wanted to open Ireland to foreign investment as early as the late 1940s, but this was opposed at the time by the Labour party, Fianna Fáil, the department of industry and commerce and the Federation of Irish Industries. He did not push the issue.

It took the severe balance of payments crisis of 1955-6 for Costello to be able to win approval for a repeal of the Control of Manufacturers Act, which placed restrictions on foreign investment, and for a zero- or low-corporation-tax policy to promote exports. This imaginative approach to tax, which provides the basis for Irish policy to attract overseas investment up to this day, was put in place by Costello’s minister for finance, Gerry Sweetman, in 1956. The restrictions on investment, though agreed in principle under Costello, were not removed until 1958, when he had lost office.

Divisions on economic policy crossed party lines. Both Costello and Lemass favoured Keynesian-style stimulus of the economy through capital spending funded by borrowing. Both ministers for finance of the period, Sweetman of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s Seán McEntee, believed that balancing the budget and restraining consumption was the better way to release funds for investment.

Food subsidies, an untargeted and expensive form of government spending, were favoured by Costello and Norton but opposed by Sweetman. These differences on economic policy between Labour and Sweetman remained an obstacle to a renewed Fine Gael-Labour coalition as late as 1970.

David McCullagh clarifies Costello’s role in the Mother and Child controversy. He was influenced much more by the views and interests of the medical profession than he was by those of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. His hands-off management style, helpful most of the time in defusing interparty tensions, did not serve him at all well in this case. But it was not Noel Browne’s resignation over the Mother and Child question that brought Costello’s first government down in 1951. It was the refusal of James Dillon, as minister for agriculture, to grant dairy farmers a milk-price increase.

The book shows Costello did not foresee the effects of his impromptu answer to a question at a press conference in Canada in 1949, when he said his government planned to declare Ireland a republic, and consequently to withdraw from the Commonwealth.

Ireland had not been participating in the Commonwealth since 1936, and his government had already agreed informally to declare a republic and withdraw fully from the Commonwealth.

But the consequences had not been teased out through diplomatic channels with the British government, which was taken by surprise. It reacted by passing the unnecessary Government of Ireland Act to reassure Unionists. This act appeared to nationalist opinion at the time to entrench partition because of the mistaken nationalist assumption that it was really British laws, not Unionist people, who were keeping partition in place.

This is a great biography of a neglected but central figure in modern Irish history, and it deserves to be widely read. Costello’s record in making coalitions work in difficult economic times has valuable lessons for his party today.

John Bruton was taoiseach from 1994 to 1997