How should Liam Cosgrave be remembered?

Liam Cosgrave in 1974
Liam Cosgrave in 1974; Photo: Irish Photo Archive

Tributes paid to Liam Cosgrave, the former leader of Fine Gael, 1965-77, and Taoiseach, 1973-77, have, following his death, stressed his sense of public service and his commitment to the institutions of state. Praised by, among others, the President of Ireland, former Taoisigh and a Catholic Archbishop, Cosgrave’s longevity in politics (he was first elected in 1943 at the age of 23 and retired from politics in 1981 at a sprightly 57) is certainly to be commended. Yet, in the commentary, there has also been disquiet at his occasional political outbursts and, during the ‘troubles’, his indifference to civil liberties. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Gerry Adams’s prominence in the Republican movement during the IRA’s campaign of violence, the President of Sinn Féin went further than most in calling Cosgrave ‘a controversial and divisive figure’. As with his father, W. T. Cosgrave, it was his Catholicism and his views on the IRA and others who he perceived as subversive elements which influenced his politics. But perhaps he should be remembered for more than just this. The extent to which Cosgrave facilitated rather than inhibited the emergence of modern Ireland has been contested but at the very least his support for Declan Costello’s Just Society proposals suggests someone open to alternative views.

First elected a TD during the Emergency, Cosgrave’s career in politics coincided with a transformative phase in modern Irish history. In some ways, he could be said to have embodied this change. These were years when a conservative society dominated by the Catholic Church, and a state which was inward-looking and distrustful of novelty, gradually opened up to fresh ideas. Moreover, by the time he retired, the state had become a member of prominent international bodies, and had a central role in planning the economy and educational system and, generally, a much more reforming ethos, things that would have been unrecognizable to a younger Liam as well as to his father whose last term in the Dáil was Liam’s first. While he was rarely instrumental in the development of new policies, Cosgrave’s support for their adoption by his party was, however, crucial. This was reflected in his role as Minister for External Affairs during the second Inter-party Government, 1954-57. In this position, it fell to him to oversee Ireland’s accession to the United Nations and to outline Irish policy at that body; in the event, under Cosgrave preserving Christian civilisation overshadowed an independent outlook on international issues.

This meant that it was somewhat surprising that in 1965 he supported the adoption of the Just Society policy by Fine Gael. A reflection of his ability to ensure that the more liberal and traditionalist wings of the party would remain united, his name and profile as well as his experience as a TD and as a Minister alongside his relative youth seems to have given him an ability to act as a bridge between different eras. Despite being more at home with the conservative elements within his party, the reality was that there were only six years between Cosgrave and Garret FitzGerald and Declan Costello, the most prominent members of the liberal wing of Fine Gael and the strongest advocates for the new policy. At least for a time, this seems to have facilitated reasonably good relations between himself and FitzGerald. But as the 1960s progressed and especially following the 1969 election defeat, tensions between the two and the two wings of the party became increasingly apparent. Nowhere was this more evident than in Cosgrave’s speech to his party’s Ard Fheis in 1972 when he criticised his opponents as ‘mongrel foxes’ whom he threatened to ‘dig out’ and leave for the pack. The perception that Cosgrave was too conservative and lacked charisma did not dissipate and was only exacerbated by his independence of mind which led him to controversy within government and made him, for a short time, an isolated figure within Fine Gael.

An early example of this independence of mind came in 1951, when Cosgrave, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach and to the Minister for Industry and Commerce, criticised Seán MacBride, then Minister for External Affairs, in the first inter-party government. In their denial of Ireland taking its place in international organisations, MacBride’s equation of Britain with ‘Communist Russia’ was dismissed by Cosgrave as a refusal to face the reality of the situation and as not helping to bring about Irish unification. More serious was Cosgrave’s opposition to his own coalition government’s contraception legislation in 1974 and at the risk of losing the party leadership his support two years earlier for the then Fianna Fáil government’s security measures. His leadership was only saved after bombs detonated by Loyalists killed two people in Dublin and his party swung behind him in Dáil Éireann. In all this, Cosgrave displayed a seriousness, a commitment to his principles and, to those with whom he disagreed, a sharp tongue.

And yet, without Cosgrave, it is probable that the 1973-77 Coalition government between Fine Gael and Labour would not have existed. Notably for the first time in 16 years there was a Fine Gael led government and Fianna Fáil were in opposition. Without Cosgrave’s political skills and professionalism it is possible that this would not have happened. Equally, his chairmanship of this government ‘of all the talents’, which included political and intellectual heavyweights such as Garret FitzGerald and Conor Cruise O’Brien, ensured that it not only survived but was reasonably effective. The government negotiated the short-lived Sunningdale Agreement in Northern Ireland and oversaw the first years of Irish membership of the European Economic Community. Cosgrave is to be credited for giving his ministers space and the freedom to develop policy even when he disagreed with its direction. For the first time, there was a single parent allowance, while the government also had a significant house-building programme, reformed the labour laws and introduced a wealth tax, subsequently abolished by Fianna Fáil. As with the Just Society policy proposals, he showed the ability to support ideas which he considered to be for the greater good. The government was not, of course, without its problems. Not least because of his experiences and those of his family during the civil war, and his consequent devotion to the army and Garda Síochána, Cosgrave brusquely dismissed concerns in relation to civil liberties. Poor relations he and his government had with successive Presidents of Ireland and economic problems including spiralling inflation further damaged the government and Cosgrave’s standing.

In all this Cosgrave’s priority was his Fine Gael party. Under him, it somewhat surprisingly moved leftwards while also becoming a more professional outfit. In contrast to the deeply divided Fianna Fáil, he was able to bring his party with him and ensured a united one was handed over in 1977 to Garret FitzGerald, his successor. While Cosgrave’s greatest legacy is his conservativism and steadfast views on law and order, as well as his loyalty to Fine Gael, he served as more than just a bridge between different eras. At his funeral, it was said of him that he left Ireland in a better place. Rather than being a divisive and controversial figure, it’s more accurate then to see Liam Cosgrave as one who, hesitatingly, played a role in facilitating the emergence of modern Ireland.

Tomás Finn

Dr Tomás Finn is a lecturer in History at NUI, Galway. His research interests include modern Irish and British history and politics, the role of intellectuals, public policy, Church-State relations and Northern Ireland.