William Thomas Cosgrave (Irish: Liam Tomás Mac Cosgair; 6 June 1880 – 16 November 1965), known generally as W.T. Cosgrave, was an Irish politician who succeeded Michael Collins as Chairman of the Irish Provisional Government from August to December 1922. He served as the first President of the Executive Council (Head of government) of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1932.
The leader of independent Ireland for the first 10 years of its existence, Cosgrave was one of the most experienced politicians in the first Dáil. Born in Dublin, he took part in the foundation of Sinn Féin in 1905.
He was elected to Dublin City Council in 1909. He joined the Volunteers in 1913 and took part in the Rising, serving in the South Dublin Union (St James’s Hospital). Jailed afterwards, he was released in the general amnesty of 1917, won a by-election in Kilkenny city in August 1917 and was elected in 1918.
Sinn Féin proved to be the big winner of the election in Ireland, capturing 73 Irish seats, 25 uncontested. Its manifesto promised abstentionism from the House of Commons in Westminster. On 21 January 1919, Sinn Féin's MPs who were not imprisoned assembled in the Round Room of the Mansion House in Dublin and formed themselves into an Assembly of Ireland, known in the Irish language as Dáil Éireann. Cathal Brugha became Príomh Aire (First or Prime Minister), also called President of Dáil Éireann.
In April 1919, Brugha resigned and Éamon de Valera, the Sinn Féin leader, who had just escaped from prison with the help of Michael Collins, assumed the premiership instead. The new government and state, known as the Irish Republic, claimed a right to govern the island of Ireland. It also declared UDI, that is, a declaration of independence which remained until the end of the Republic unrecognised by any other world state except the Russian Republic under Lenin.
Unable to attend the first meeting of the Dáil as he was in jail, Cosgrave was appointed minister for local government when de Valera took over in April, 1919. After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in December 1921, three of the seven- member cabinet supported it and three were opposed. Cosgrave’s position was crucial but he supported Griffith and the cabinet voted four- three in favour. The Dáil followed suit on an equally tight margin of 64 to 57.
When Griffith and Collins died in August, 1922, Cosgrave took over as leader of government. He remained leader for the first 10 years of the State’s existence.
W.T. Cosgrave was a small, quiet man, and at 42 was the oldest member of the Cabinet. He had not sought the leadership of the new country but once it was his he made good use of it. One of his chief priorities was to hold the new country together and to prove that the Irish could govern themselves. Some historians have noted that he lacked vision as a leader and was surrounded by men who were more capable than himself. However, over his ten years as President he provided the emerging Irish state with an able leader who had a sound judgement on the matters of state that the new country was facing.
As head of the Free State government during the Civil War, he was ruthless in what he saw as defence of the state against his former republican comrades. Although he actually disagreed with the use of the death penalty in principle, in October 1922 he enacted a Public Safety Bill, which allowed for the execution of anyone who was captured bearing arms against the state or aiding armed attacks on state forces. He told the Dáil on 27 September 1922, "although I have always objected to the death penalty, there is no other way that I know of in which ordered conditions can be restored in this country, or any security obtained for our troops, or to give our troops any confidence in us as a government".
Cosgrave's position was that a guerrilla war could drag on indefinitely, making the achievement of law and order and establishing the Free State impossible, if harsh action was not taken. His reputation suffered after he ordered the execution without trial of republican prisoners during the civil war.
In all, 77 republicans were executed by the Free State between November 1922 and the end of the war in May 1923, including Robert Erskine Childers, Liam Mellowes and Rory O'Connor, far more than the 14 IRA Volunteers the British executed in the War of Independence. The Republican side, for their part, attacked pro-Treaty politicians and their homes and families. Cosgrave's family home was burned down by Anti-Treaty fighters and an uncle of his was shot dead.
In April 1923, the Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin members organised a new political party called Cumann na nGaedhael with Cosgrave as leader. The following month the civil war was brought to an end, when the remaining Anti-Treaty IRA guerrillas announced a ceasefire and dumped their arms.
In the first few years in power Cosgrave's new government faced a number of problems. Firstly, the government attempted to reduce the size of the Irish Army.
During the civil war, it had grown to over 55,000 men which, now that the civil war was over, was far too large and costly to maintain. However, some army officers challenged the authority of the government to cut the size of the Army. The officers, mostly Pro-Treaty IRA men, were angry that the government was not doing enough to help to create a republic and also there would be massive unemployment.
In March 1924, more layoffs were expected and the army officers, Major-General Liam Tobin and Colonel Charles Dalton sent an ultimatum to the government demanding an end to the demobilisation. Kevin O'Higgins, the Minister for Justice, who was also acting President for Cosgrave while the latter was in hospital, moved to resolve the so-called "Army Mutiny". Richard Mulcahy, the Minister for Defence, resigned and O'Higgins was victorious in a very public power struggle within Cumann na nGaedhael. The crisis within the army was solved but the government was divided.
In 1924, the British and Irish governments agreed to attend the "Boundary Commission" to redraw the border which partitioned Ireland between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. The Free State's representative was Eoin MacNeill, a respected scholar and Minister for Education. The Free State expected to gain much territory in heavily Catholic and republican parts of counties Londonderry, Fermanagh, Tyrone, and Armagh, as the British government had indicated during the treaty negotiations that the wishes of the nationalist inhabitants along the border would be taken into account. However, after months of secret negotiations a newspaper reported that there would be little change to the border and the Free State would actually lose territory in Donegal.
MacNeill resigned from the commission and the government for not reporting to Cosgrave on the details of the commission. Cosgrave immediately went to London for a meeting with the British Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, where they agreed to let the border remain as it was, and in return the Free State did not have to pay its pro-rata share of the Imperial debt. In the Dáil debate on 7 December Cosgrave stated: "I had only one figure in my mind and that was a huge nought. That was the figure I strove to get, and I got it."
Cosgrave notably turned down a plea for asylum in Ireland for Leon Trotsky while in exile. The request was made by the trade union leader William X. O'Brien in 1930. Cosgrave told O'Brien
Told him [O'Brien] "I could see no reason why Trotsky should be considered by us. Russian bonds had been practically confiscated. He said there was to be consideration of them. I said it was not by Trotsky, whose policy was the reverse. I asked his nationality. Reply Jew. They were against religion (he said that was modified). I said not by Trotsky. He said he had hoped there would be an asylum here as in England for all. I agreed that under normal conditions, which we had not here, that would be alright. But we had no touch with this man or his Government, nor did they interest themselves in us in his 'day'.
A general election was not necessary until the end of 1932, however, Cosgrave called one for February of that year. There was growing unrest in the country and a fresh mandate was needed for an important Commonwealth meeting in the summer. Cumann na nGaedhael fought the election on its record of providing ten years of honest government and political and economic stability. Instead of developing new policies the party played the "red card" by portraying the new party, Fianna Fáil, as communists. Fianna Fáil offered the electorate a fresh and popular manifesto of social reform. Unable to compete with this Cosgrave and his party lost the election, and a minority Fianna Fáil government came to power. In 1932, Fianna Fáil won, and de Valera took power.
Following the general election, Cosgrave assumed the nominal role of Leader of the Opposition. Fianna Fáil were expected to have a short tenure in government, however, this turned out to be a sixteen year period of rule by the new party. In 1933 three groups, Cumann na nGaedhael, the National Centre Party and the National Guard came together to form a new political force, Fine Gael - the United Ireland Party. Cosgrave became the first parliamentary leader of the new party, serving until his retirement in 1944. During that period, the new party failed to win a general election. Cosgrave retired as leader of the party and from politics in 1944.