Liam Cosgrave In Later Years
Liam Cosgrave (born 13 April 1920) is a former Irish Fine Gael politician who served as Taoiseach (1973–77) and as Leader of Fine Gael (1965–77). He was a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1943 to 1981.
Born in Dublin, Cosgrave was the son of W. T. Cosgrave, the first President of the Executive Council in the newly formed Irish Free State. After qualifying as a barrister he decided to embark on a political career. He was elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1943 general election and sat in opposition alongside his father. The formation of the first inter-party government in 1948 saw Cosgrave become a Parliamentary Secretary to Taoiseach John A. Costello. He formally became a cabinet member in 1954 when he was appointed Minister for External Affairs. The highlight of his three-year tenure was Ireland's successful entry into the United Nations. In 1965 Cosgrave was the unanimous choice of his colleagues to succeed James Dillon as leader of Fine Gael. He lost the 1969 general election to the incumbent Jack Lynch, but won the 1973 general election and became Taoiseach in a Fine Gael-Labour Party government.
From an early age Liam Cosgrave displayed a keen interest in politics, discussing the topic with his father as a teenager before eventually joining Fine Gael at the age of 17, speaking at his first public meeting the same year. He was educated at Castleknock College, Dublin, and King's Inns. He studied law and was called to the Irish bar in 1943. To the surprise of his family, Liam decided to seek election to Dáil Éireann in the 1943 general election and was elected as a Teachta Dála (TD) for Dublin County at the age of 23, sitting in the 11th Dáil alongside his father W. T. Cosgrave who was one of the founders of the Irish Free State in the 1920s. Cosgrave rapidly rose through the ranks of Fine Gael, and was regarded as being by far the most able and active of Fine Gael's newer TDs. The party was, however, at an extremely low ebb in the 1940s spending many years in opposition. Cosgrave wrote to the Party Leader, Richard Mulcahy, in May, 1947, on the poor attendance in the Dail, and informed his leader that "I cannot any longer conscientiously ask the public to support the party as a party, and in the circumstances I do not propose to speak at meetings outside my constituency." Nevertheless, Cosgrave became the parliamentary secretary to the Taoiseach and Chief Whip when the party returned to power in 1948. Mulcahy, while remaining leader of Fine Gael, allowed John A Costello to become Taoiseach of the Inter Party Government as the latter had wider appeal and acceptance.
The first coalition Government collapsed in 1951. However in 1954 a second inter-party Government was formed. On this occasion Liam Cosgrave, at the age of 34, was given a cabinet position. As Minister for External Affairs Cosgrave took part in trade discussions and chaired the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1955. He also presided over Ireland's admittance to the United Nations in 1955. Cosgrave outlined the three principles of his foreign policy to the Dail in June,1956, the first was adherence to the principles of the UN Charter, the second was independence and non-alignment, but the third made clear where Ireland's sympathies lay: "to do whatever we can as a member of the UN to preserve the Christian civilisation of which we are a part and with that end in view to support whenever possible those powers principally responsible for the defence of the free world in their resistance to the spread of communist power and influence." Ireland was non aligned in favour of the United States. The second Inter Party government collapsed amid severely deflationary policies set by the patrician Minister for Finance, Gerard Sweetman, and Cosgrave held Sweetman personally responsible for Fine Gael's defeat in 1957, and told him so, reportedly stating that Fine Gael "was no longer led by people living in big houses at the end of long avenues." He did not speak to Sweetman for some years.
Cosgrave remained active in opposition but he privately supported Fianna Fáil's referendum to abolish the system of proportional representation in June, 1959, which was defeated. This opposition was to count against him later that year in the leadership contest. In October, 1959, the dual leadership of Fine Gael, Mulcahy and Costello, stood down. Costello wanted to continue his practice as a senior counsel as well as being leader. He had asked Cosgrave to be his "managing director" in the Dail while he was absent on legal work. Cosgrave, not surprisingly, had declined this. James Dillon and Cosgrave contested the leadership with Dillon decisively elected. With Fine Gael back in opposition during the 1960s, an internal struggle for the soul of the party was beginning. A large body of members called on Fine Gael to move decisively towards social democracy. A set of eight principles known as the Just Society was put forward to the party leadership by Declan Costello, the son of John A Costello, the former Taoiseach. The principles called for higher state spending in Health and Social Welfare on top of a greater state role in the economy. Despite his conservative credentials, Cosgrave adopted a somewhat positive attitude to the Just Society document. Nevertheless, Fianna Fáil went on to win the 1965 General Election and Fine Gael remained in opposition.
In 1965, when James Dillon retired as Fine Gael leader after the 1965 general election loss, Liam Cosgrave, as a senior party figure and son of the first parliamentary leader of Fine Gael, easily won the leadership. He led his party to defeat in the 1969 election and was under constant threat and challenge by younger more social democratic elements represented by Garret FitzGerald who was elected to the 1969 Dáil. Cosgrave's erstwhile opponent, Declan Costello, had retired in 1969. Cosgrave's fortunes changed in 1970. He played a key role in the Arms Crisis, when, as leader of the opposition, he pressured then Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, to take action against senior ministers who were involved in importing arms intended for the Provisional IRA. The information had been leaked to him by a member of the Garda Special Branch.
Cosgrave's determination to support government anti-terrorist legislation in votes in the Dáil, in the face of outright opposition from his party, almost cost him his leadership. The growing liberal wing in Fine Gael was opposing the Government's stringent laws on civil liberty grounds. Cosgrave put the security of the State and its institutions first. At the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in May 1972, Cosgrave faced down his political opponents in spectacular style. 1972 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Irish Free State and so was an important milestone in the history of Fine Gael. However, the FF government ignored the anniversary while liberals in Fine Gael were plotting to remove Cosgrave as leader. In a speech littered with references to Fine Gael's founding fathers, he contrasted the difficulties posed by the IRA in Northern Ireland with those faced by the first Free State government in dealing with the anti-treatyites. Departing from his script Cosgrave rounded on his leadership rivals. Asking delegates if they did any hunting Cosgrave declared that "... some of these commentators and critics are now like mongrel foxes; they are gone to ground but I'll dig them out, and the pack will chop them when they get them". Despite being criticized for taking a "partionist" or unionist stance in his speech, Cosgrave was leading Fine Gael back into power a year later. Cosgrave supported the Government's Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill in November, 1972, despite the position taken by Fine Gael to oppose the Bill.
Cosgrave was determined not to alienate certain wings of his party in choosing his cabinet. The cabinet was described as being the "Government of all talents", including such luminaries as future Taoiseach and writer Garret FitzGerald, former United Nations diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien, television presenter and veterinary professor Justin Keating and others. Cosgrave balanced these with hardline Christian Democrats such as Richard Burke, a former teacher, Cork merchant prince Peter Barry and west Dublin farmer Mark Clinton.
It has been argued that Cosgrave fell into the category of being a "chairman" rather than a "chief" as far as the day to day running of his Government was concerned. He was meticulous in adhering to the implementation of the Fourteen Point Plan on which the National Coalition was elected. Many of his cabinet ministers were greater stars in their own right than he was. To the surprise of many, he appointed Richie Ryan rather than Garret FitzGerald as his Minister for Finance when the Labour Party leader, Brendan Corish, declined the position in 1973. Ryan, a Dublin solicitor, was of typically conservative Fine Gael stock. Nevertheless Ryan (dubbed "Red Richie" by Fianna Fáil) implemented the Coalition's plans to replace death duties with a range of capital taxes, including Capital Gains Tax and Wealth Tax. Fianna Fáil bitterly opposed these new capital taxes and garnered considerable support from the wealthy and propertied classes as a result that would stand them in good stead in future elections.
The National Coalition had a string of bad luck. It started with the world energy crisis triggered by the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, which caused inflationary problems. It suffered an early electoral defeat in the 1973 presidential election, when Fine Gael candidate Tom O'Higgins was defeated by the Fianna Fáil candidate, Erskine H. Childers, who became President of Ireland.
In December 1973, the Supreme Court declared the ban on the importation of contraceptives by married persons to be unconstitutional. Patrick Cooney, the Minister for Justice, introduced legislation in 1974 to regulate and allow for married couples to obtain contraceptives. Fianna Fáil opposed any liberalisation of the law on family planning and fought the measure in the Dáil on grounds of protection of public morality and health. In line with his conservative credentials, and on a free vote, Cosgrave, without warning, crossed the floor to help defeat his own Government's bill in the summer of 1974.
The presidency dogged the National Coalition. Erskine Childers had sought the presidency with promises of making the office more open and hands-on, in particular with plans to create a think tank within Aras an Uachtarain to develop an outline for Ireland's future. Cosgrave refused to allow it, and frustrated Childers' plans to break with the restrained precedent of his office.
President Childers died suddenly in November 1974. The agreed replacement was Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, a former Attorney General of Ireland and Chief Justice. O'Dalaigh was a member of Fianna Fáil and had run unsuccessfully for election as a TD. O'Dalaigh was also a noted critic of the curtailment of free speech and was highly critical of the introduction of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which forbade the broadcast of the voices of Sinn Féin members. This put him at odds with Cosgrave, whose government had strengthened the act. Cosgrave, as such, maintained a marked distance from Aras an Uachtarain; whereas previously, presidents had been briefed by taoisigh once a month, Cosgrave briefed Presidents Childers and Ó Dálaigh on average once every six months. In addition, Cosgrave frequently interfered in Ó Dálaigh's constitutional role as the state's representative to foreign governments; he was not permitted to receive the Legion of Honour from France, although former president Sean T. O'Kelly had previously received it, and Cosgrave attended the United States' bicentennial celebrations in 1976 in Ó Dálaigh's place.
Ó Dálaigh's decision in 1976 to exercise his power to refer a bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality brought him into more direct conflict with the National Coalition. The government had introduced the Emergency Powers Bill following the assassination in July of the British Ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, by the IRA; it had passed the Dáil on 21 September. After consultation with the Council of State, Ó Dálaigh referred the bill to the Supreme Court two days later. Although the court ruled that the bill was constitutional, and Ó Dálaigh subsequently signed the bill into law on 16 October, an IRA action on the same day in Mountmellick resulted in the death of a member of Garda Michael Clerkin. Cosgrave's government, already infuriated, blamed Ó Dálaigh's delaying enactment of the bill for Clerkin's murder. On 18 October Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan attacked the President for sending the bill to the Supreme court, calling him a "thundering disgrace".
Cosgrave called to inform the president of Donegan's speech, but refused to meet with him in person to discuss the matter owing to his dislike for Ó Dálaigh, fueling the president's anger; he refused to receive Donegan when he came to personally apologize. When Cosgrave then refused to accept Donegan's resignation, this proved the last straw for Ó Dálaigh, who resigned on 22 October 1976 "to protect the dignity and independence of the presidency as an institution."
Cosgrave's Government signed the Sunningdale Agreement that appeared to provide a solution to the Northern Irish problem in December, 1973. A powersharing executive was set up and a Council of Ireland was to be established but it all came crashing down in May 1974 as a consequence of the Ulster Workers' Council Strike. In addition, many Republican voters were angered by what they saw as Cosgrave's harsh line on the PIRA and the handling of the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings which resulted in the perpetrators walking scot-free. In addition both the Irish Times and the Irish Press, which was then edited by Tim Pat Coogan, were extremely critical of the government's curtailment of freedom of speech and in particular of the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs Conor Cruise O'Brien which was used against the IRA. Tim Pat Coogan declared what he dubbed "editorial war" on the government after a, now notorious, interview between Bernard Nossiter of the Washington Post and O'Brien in August 1976 regarding the passage of the Emergency Powers Bill. During the course of the interview O'Brien stated that he would've liked the bill to be used against teachers who glorified Irish revolutionaries and against newspaper editors who published letters in support of Republicans. Cosgrave was accused of taking an anti-republican or pro-unionist line regarding the north. During this period, on 17 March 1976, he was also invited to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, the third Irish leader to do so.
The Cosgrave government's tough anti-terrorist laws alienated the public, as did its tough austerity measures (Finance Minister Richie Ryan was nicknamed 'Richie Ruin' on a satirical TV programme, Hall's Pictorial Weekly). Marginal income tax rates came to 77% one year during the Coalition's reign. The electorate had not experienced unemployment and hardship of this nature since the fifties and the Government became quite unpopular. Combined with the Donegan affair and the hard line approach to law and order, the economic difficulties were quite damaging to Cosgrave and Corish's popularity.
In May 1977, Cosgrave addressed a euphoric Fine Gael Ard Fheis on the eve of the general election. He made a strong attack on "blow-ins" who could "blow out or blow up". This was taken to be an attack on Bruce Arnold, the English born political writer in the Irish Independent newspaper who had been vociferously opposed to Cosgrave's policies particularly regarding the President and the wealth tax. While the Fine Gael grassroots loved it, the public were appalled.
Cosgrave, together with James Tully, the Labour Minister for Local Government had redrawn the constituency boundaries to favour Fine Gael and Labour for the first time (the "Tullymander") and they confidently expected the new boundaries would win for them. Dublin, apart from Dun Laoghaire, was divided into some 13 three seat constituencies where Fine Gael and Labour were to take one seat each reducing Fianna Fáil to a minority rump in the capital. The election campaign started without Cosgrave taking any opinion polls in advance - therefore not knowing that Fianna Fáil were well ahead. (At the time, the media did not take opinion polls as they exist today.)
During the campaign, the National Coalition made up some ground but the Fianna Fáil manifesto of give away promises (no rates, no car tax, and so forth) was far too attractive for the electorate and the National Coalition was heavily defeated, with Fianna Fáil winning an unprecedented massive parliamentary majority. Fianna Fáil won unexpected second seats in many Dublin constituencies, in particular.
In the immediate aftermath, Liam Cosgrave resigned as Fine Gael leader. He was replaced by his former Foreign Minister, Garret FitzGerald. Cosgrave retired at the 1981 general election. Cosgrave can be accused of calling the 1977 election prematurely, as the Irish economy was recovering rapidly in early 1977 and a later election in the autumn or winter of that year may have been more propitious for the National Coalition.
In 1981, Cosgrave retired as Dáil Deputy for Dun Laoghaire to be replaced by his son, Liam junior. He has effectively withdrawn from public life for a third of a century, emerging from time to time to attend funerals of his former colleagues.
In 2010, Cosgrave made a rare public appearance for the launch of The Reluctant Taoiseach, a book about former Taoiseach John A. Costello written by David McCullagh.
He receives annual pension payments of €133,025.
Liam's son, Liam T. Cosgrave, was also an Irish politician who was accused before the Mahon Tribunal of accepting illegal payments from property developers in return for voting to rezone property in Dublin: he resigned from the Fine Gael party when this became known and pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was disqualified from continuing in his legal practice.