Diarmaid Ferriter: Cosgrave was a man of strong views who disliked ‘codology’
Vote on contraception backed up reputation for having ‘deeply pious old head on young shoulders’
Liam Cosgrave will be remembered primarily as leader of Fine Gael for 12 years, from 1965 to 1977, during a period of great turbulence and soul-searching for the party and for serving as taoiseach from 1973 to 1977 when his party held power with the Labour Party, having broken Fianna Fáil’s grip on office that extended back to 1957. That government remained longer in office than any other since the second World War, an indication of Cosgrave’s considerable political management skills. He was a man of strong views, occasionally fiercely expressed, but he was no grandstander and did not indulge in much elaboration.
As the son of the first head of government of the Free State, William T Cosgrave, Liam was steeped in the tradition of the primacy of the State and its institutions. When he was elected taoiseach in 1973 some of the correspondence from the public underlined this heritage and drew parallels between the challenges he faced and what his father had faced 50 years previously. Liam himself had directly alluded to the challenges of the Civil War era the previous year on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty – it was, he insisted, “the ancestors” of the Fine Gael he led that had established law and order and the viability of the new State.
Fianna Fáil ignored that anniversary of the treaty, according to Liam’s colleague Richie Ryan, because of the party’s “pygmy-minded pettiness”. Cosgrave would have approved of that insult; as he saw it, the main difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was that “FG represents the straightforward commonsense part of the SF tradition; the other party is hamstrung by having built myths into its very foundation . . . which result in hollow pretence”.
He was dismissive of “verbal patriotism” being accepted as the “highest form of political martyrdom” and as Conor Cruise O’Brien pointed out, he disliked the school of oratory he called “dying for Ireland”. He is likely to have agreed in 1974 with the sentiments expressed in a private letter to him from president Erskine Childers, whose father had been executed during the Civil War; with so much focus on remembering those who died for Ireland: “We do not do half enough to commemorate the lives of those who worked for Ireland.”
Cosgrave had an intense dislike of what he called “codology” and was adamant when making the case for his party that Fine Gael was “not particularly interested in the meaning of isms. Our approach is truly pragmatic and flexible”.
There is plenty of evidence he meant that; he was able to work well with the Labour Party in government and was prepared to support its priorities, including in the areas of house building and welfare payment increases. There was a long history attached to his flexibility; he had been quite positive about the Just Society ideas of the 1960s being promoted by younger elements in Fine Gael – his peers – and had a pragmatic attitude to the proposals for higher state social spending, increased taxes and extensive economic planning. Fine Gael, he said, should be “slightly left of centre”; it should not be doctrinaire socialist, but neither should it be “a Tory ghost”. He was pragmatic enough too, to work with and promote colleagues who were more liberal than he was; he liked to say that “a bird never flew on one wing” and he knew his party didn’t either.
In 1970, when leader of the Opposition, he was given information about the alleged involvement of Fianna Fáil ministers in a plan to import arms for use by Irish republicans and these revelations had the potential to do much damage to Fianna Fáil. Cosgrave was apparently prepared to go solo with the information to generate maximum embarrassment for his opponents but instead, after consideration and consultation, and after the Sunday Independent chose not to publish it, he went to taoiseach Jack Lynch privately, as he saw it as “my duty in the national interest”.
Lynch later characterised him as “fair and fearless” as a political opponent and praised “the high standards he set for himself and maintained”. Lynch saw him as having “enhanced Irish public life . . . Cosgrave has given all his adult life to the service of the country”. As revealed in the national archives , after the coalition lost the 1977 general election, a supporter wrote to him to suggest “the number of men of integrity and of your calibre in the Dáil are scarce as roses in December”.
There were others, of course, who disputed that. His government badly mishandled the aftermath of the horrors of the UVF Dublin-Monaghan bombs in 1974 that killed 33 people; he spoke with firmness, sadness and dignity in the aftermath of the carnage, but his government did not respond adequately to Garda bungling of post-bomb investigations, or to allegations of collusion with the UVF, and that the families bereaved were not afforded basic information or respect. There were serious issues during his period in office in relation to policing, the operation of a Garda “heavy gang”, the undermining of civil liberties and contemptuous treatment of journalists.
He was, however, consistent about the State not tolerating any threat to its stability. He made it clear he would not vote against Fianna Fáil’s Offences Against the State Act in 1972 and that nearly cost him his leadership of Fine Gael, but the prevalence of violence saw him survive. Tensions had been simmering within the party throughout that year; at the Fine Gael ardfheis he had rounded on his opponents, famously declaring them “mongrel foxes” who he said he would dig out so that the pack could deal with them.
As Irish Times political correspondent Denis Coghlan was to characterise it, this was the kind of off-the-cuff remark “that brought the old Blueshirt element in the party roaring to its feet”. He had consumed two large whiskeys before the speech, a style of preparation unthinkable today. But he also lacked judgment in relation to these kinds of outbursts; five years later, when taoiseach, he suggested political commentators criticising him could “blow out or blow up”.
Cosgrave was also taoiseach at the time of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, the first attempt to implement a comprehensive settlement for Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the closure of its parliament in 1972. It included a powersharing executive and cross-Border co-operation through a Council of Ireland.
Garret FitzGerald exaggerated in 1981 by suggesting that with this agreement, Cosgrave “came nearer than any Irishman before or since to resolving the problem of the unity of the Irish people”. He did not come near; more militant unionists and republicans were not included, the powersharing executive fell quickly and Cosgrave blamed the failure of the British government to stand up to law-breaking unionists who wrecked the agreement while also being prepared to admit the Irish government had over-sold the idea of a Council of Ireland. In approaching the problem, Cosgrave had stressed the importance of “keeping the politicians in business” in Northern Ireland but after Sunningdale there was ambivalence, drift and lack of ideas; Cosgrave had an “open mind” on a united Ireland but, after Sunningdale, had no real ideas on how to initiate a new phase.
Cosgrave caused quite a stir by voting against his own government’s contraceptive legislation in 1974, but having promised his party a free vote on what he regarded as a “matter of conscience” he merely took advantage of that. His decision was not without consequence for relations between ministers and the coalition parties; the Labour Party’s David Thornley regarded his decision as embarrassing, but like many others he also viewed Cosgrave as a courteous gentleman who was capable of kindness and humour.
A cleaner in Leinster House was not remotely surprised at Cosgrave’s contraception vote: “sure, what would you expect? Wasn’t he an altar boy until he was 24?” a reminder of the not inaccurate perception of Cosgrave as a deeply pious old head on relatively young shoulders. But he was also prepared to face down senior members of the church when their demands clashed with government policy; he supported his minister for justice Patrick Cooney, for example, when he refused the request of Bishop Edward Daly to be allowed visit paramilitary prisoners in the context of concern about prison conditions.
He was also capable of petty tribalism in his spats with Fianna Fáil. In 1976 he let himself down badly by not sacking minister for defence Patrick Donegan after Donegan gratuitously insulted president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh because he had referred the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court. Cosgrave behaved in a way that ill-behoved the office he held. He had shunned Ó Dálaigh, a former Fianna Fáil candidate, which the president regarded as “a grave constitutional default . . . on none of the occasions of your infrequent visits . . . did you, in your conversations with me, say anything to me that could be construed even remotely to amount to keeping the president generally informed on matters of domestic and international policy – a mandatory requirement of your office.”
French newspaper Le Monde carried a profile of Cosgrave when he was taoiseach and noted there was nothing of the personality cult around him; that he led a team and always spoke in the name of that team. He did not like to be bombarded with hugely detailed memorandums and was perceived as a delegator and that suited the likes of Garret FitzGerald, minister for foreign affairs and Conor Cruise O’Brien, minister for posts and telegraphs, but who regularly strayed into other areas; his ministers were given considerable latitude.
As O’Brien saw it, while Cosgrave was “ultra Conservative” on law and order and religion, he was much softer on economic and social matters. Despite impressive figures – 100,000 houses built and social welfare expenditure increased from £151 million to £520 million from 1973 to 1977 – the scale of the oil crisis and rampant inflation meant the cost of living did great damage to the coalition. The austere climate was reflected in popular culture in the portrayal of Cosgrave as a mitten-clad Minister for Hardship courtesy of the satirical TV programme Hall’s Pictorial Weekly on RTÉ.
Fine Gael ran a woefully inadequate election campaign in 1977; Garret FitzGerald wrote simply that Fine Gael was “utterly unprepared” for it. While Fianna Fáil produced a reckless, giveaway manifesto, Cosgrave preferred to be guided by his own instincts and letters he received form the public rather than opinion polls; he also refused to debate Lynch or engage in what he called a “Dutch auction” and focused on the coalition’s achievements rather than its plans for the future.
Cosgrave was dignified in how he handled defeat. While his colleague Oliver J Flanagan was furious and wrote to Cosgrave claiming “there appears to be no place in Irish politics for honesty”, Cosgrave just got on with it, in keeping with an approach that was frequently under the radar; he always seemed modest and quite frugal in his habits and demeanour.
When he was researching the life of William T Cosgrave, historian Michael Laffan noted, “He had no interest in justifying his record and he contributed to his own neglect by leaving few papers behind him”. The same was true of Liam, another indication of a politician who was not overly driven by ego, but by relatively understated public service and duty. For the most part, the very lack of drama was probably his greatest strength.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD and an Irish Times columnist