Liam Cosgrave: A life defending the state in public service
Any understanding of the life and times of Liam Cosgrave has to be seen as a personal and political continuum with that of his father – W.T Cosgrave. They both lived long lives. They both lead their party and obtained the highest political office in the state. They both believed that Ireland’s independence was rooted in democracy, the rule of law and in defending the institutions of the state at all costs.
Liam Cosgrave never denied the nationalist and revolutionary background of his father. Every year, he honoured the men of 1916 and their sacrifice in winning Irish independence. But he always made clear – both in public and private – that his father had joined Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein! It was a very pointed reference to highlight the difference from those who use the name of that party today.
Liam Cosgrave loved his father and what his father’s generation had achieved. He saw the success of WT’s government as moving the country from chaos to order after the destruction of the early 1920s. And I think he saw his time in politics – a career in the Dáil of 38 long years – as building on the legacy of his father, a legacy of nation building. He stoutly defended what his father had done to bring the madness of the civil war to an end.
While Liam Cosgrave retired from politics in 1981, as someone who met him quite a bit over the years, I know that he still kept a close eye on the political landscape. On becoming OPW Minister in 2011 he rang to congratulate me and reminded me that he had appointed Henry Kenny (Enda Kenny’s Father) to the same position in 1973. “I wouldn’t mind, he did a good job too”. It left me in no doubt of what was expected!
Indeed it was his clipped Dublin accent and wit which made you take note of what he had to say. When he spoke you listened. In recent years he spoke out more, but exclusively on the history and the political personalities of the time. He often settled a few scores! But never spoke about current events. When Liam Cosgrave retired he retired. But he always took duties as a member of the Council of State over many years very seriously.
Liam Cosgrave was first elected in 1943 at the age of 23. He was very critical of Fine Gael’s rather amateurish approach to party politics. He strongly supported the development of the party organisation with a more robust Dáil performance by Fine Gael TDs. He rapidly rose through the ranks of the Party and became Minister for External Affairs in the Inter-Party Government in 1954. His big achievement in that office was Ireland’s accession to the UN in 1955.
He contested the leadership of Fine Gael in 1957 but was defeated by James Dillon. Eventually in 1965 he took over from Dillon as party leader and remained in that position until 1977.
The 1969-73 period saw Cosgrave face down internal party dissent and he supported the Taoiseach Jack Lynch in facing up to the growing threat from the IRA. It was a period of intense rivalry within Fine Gael between liberals – led by Costello and Fitzgerald – and more traditional conservative views.
He famously backed Lynch on the Offences against the State Bill in 1972 despite the fact that FG were opposing the Bill. His finest hour came in May 1970 when he forced Lynch to confront the threat of subversion to the state from those within his own cabinet.
In 1973 Liam Cosgrave finally became Taoiseach, leading a government of all the talents, as it was called. He had a close working relationship with Brendan Corish, leader of the Labour Party. He was fearless in his opposition to the growing threat from the IRA and other subversives. At the same time he and Garret FitzGerald, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, worked closely with the British on Northern Ireland.
The Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973 was a public acknowledgement by the British government that direct involvement by the Irish government was essential to any resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland. If anything the Sunningdale Agreement was too ambitious for its time but it did provide a template for future negotiations.
In 1973 the world economy was rocked by the first OPEC oil embargo which caused a deep recession. The Irish economy was badly hit. During the same period however major improvements were introduced in unemployment insurance, sickness benefit and pension entitlements. While Cosgrave is often seen as an economic conservative it was his government that introduced Capital Gains Tax and a Wealth Tax. Liam Cosgrave’s loyal no. 2 and Finance Minister was famously christened “Red Richie” (Richie Ryan). It was also the government that was satirised in a devastating way by Halls Pictorial Weekly on RTE.
Liam Cosgrave like most men of the time was socially conservative. He famously voting against his own government’s legislation on contraception in the summer of 1974.
When the 1977 election took place, the mood of the country had shifted against the Cosgrave government and of course Fianna Fail bought the election with its promises to abolish rates, car taxes and the recently introduced wealth tax.
I met Liam Cosgrave for the last time in August in Tallaght hospital with my two sons. Despite his years and his remarkable recall, the conversation that day was all about the Galway racing festival and how the new Taoiseach was doing. At 97 years young he was as inquisitive and as probing as ever.
It’s hard to think that Liam Cosgrave is no longer with us. And while that loss is felt most acutely amongst his immediate family, I cannot help believing that for many people, especially for older people in Ireland, his death marks the end of an extraordinary era.