Those listening to the extensive coverage of the death of former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave were entitled to be fed up with the endless playing of the clip of him rounding on the “mongrel foxes” at Fine Gael’s ardfheis in 1972. That was Cosgrave’s description of those he thought responsible for undermining his leadership of the party. It is hardly a recording that reflects well on him, any more than the other clips repeatedly aired last week in which he snarled about “commentators” and “blow-ins” who were “not even Irish” and sneered at the words “civil liberties”.
These clips were dissected in quite a humorous way, partly because time can transform venom into things regarded as fairly harmless skirmishes and partly because in the immediate aftermath of the death of a notable there is an understandable reluctance to speak ill of the dead.
The “mongrel foxes” were even referred to at Cosgrave’s funeral, to the apparent amusement of the congregation. But we do ourselves no favours in eliding the ugliness of the rhetoric, what it tells us about Ireland in the 1970s, and how the legacy of that era has in some ways endured.
Historian Brian Hanley pointed out in a letter to this newspaper during the week that “any assessment of Liam Cosgrave’s life must also include a discussion of his willingness to indulge in such authoritarian populist rhetoric…and his government’s record regarding civil liberties”.
It should be possible to give Cosgrave credit for his positive traits – and his decision not to put the State to the trouble of a State funeral was honourable and reflected a decency and lack of ego – while acknowledging some of the disturbing practices that flourished during his government’s period in office.
At his own request there was little said at his funeral, but his son Liam pointedly noted the “great support” given to his father by members of An Garda Síochána: “he was a great supporter of theirs and they returned it tenfold”.
While Cosgrave was in office 40 years ago this newspaper published stories by Don Buckley, Renagh Holohan and Joe Joyce on the treatment of suspects by gardaí, under the headline “Gardaí using North-style brutality in interrogation techniques”.
These methods, used by “a special group of gardaí…the Heavy Gang as the group has been nicknamed”, included “physical beatings and psychological techniques similar to some used in Northern Ireland to obtain information and secure incriminating statements”.
It was also suggested these practices had become more entrenched since the introduction the previous year of the Emergency Powers Act which gave the Garda power to detain suspects for seven days. It was concerns about this Act that led to President Cearbhall O Dálaigh referring it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.
This generated a ferocious reaction from the government that ultimately resulted in O Dálaigh's resignation when Cosgrave refused to discipline his minister for defence Patrick Donegan after Donegan insulted O Dálaigh. The Irish Times reports in 1977 suggested the methods of the "Heavy Gang" appeared to "have developed in response to political pressure to get results".
The poison of the Troubles, including the killing of gardaí, was a part of the context of that era, and the atmosphere was fuelled by intense hatred. That was why policing represented such a challenge and required maturity.
The report of an Amnesty International mission to the Irish Republic in 1977 examined 28 cases relating to the period April 1976 to May 1977, and referred to maltreatment of those in custody by detectives: “Allegations common to every case examined are that the victims were at various times beaten and punched” and deprived of food, drink and sleep. There was consistency in the nature of the allegations from “persons arrested at different times and in different parts of the country.”
Lawyers could not get access to their clients, and this was “exacerbated by a common practice of moving an arrested person to several different police stations in the course of one day or night”.
The report criticised absolute government inaction, and pointed to the irony of the same government making a “significant contribution” towards the adoption by the UN General Assembly of a declaration on the protection of all persons being subjected to torture and the impartial investigation of such allegations.
Although, in private, minister for foreign affairs Garret FitzGerald expressed the view that the Amnesty report needed to be given “serious and urgent consideration in view of the gravity of the allegations”, the coalition government headed by Cosgrave refused to co-operate.
The fact that 40 years later, after numerous inquiries and scandals, Mick Clifford in his new book about Garda whistle-blower Maurice McCabe refers to the “impenetrable blue wall behind which the force operates”, and the difficulties associated with “the interface of policing and politics”, is a measure of the length of one of the shadows cast by the Cosgrave era.