Liam Cosgrave: Marking border between old and new Ireland

For someone who was far more comfortable waiting quietly in the background than standing in the glare of the spotlight, the past few days of wall-to-wall attention must feel unusual for those who knew Liam Cosgrave, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

How apt, then, that amid the high-profile coverage of his life and times, the late taoiseach’s true legacy has been quietly and sensitively overlooked, left in the background where he felt most at home.

As news of his death at the age of 97 emerged on Wednesday night, politicians across the party divide took the respectful step of remembering the former taoiseach in his best possible light.

He was a gentleman and person of principle, they said, someone with strong views who stuck resolutely to them, and — ultimately — put the nation first by walking away to a silent retirement when they were beginning to be rejected.

All of this is true and should not be forgotten.

But an equally honest appraisal is that Mr Cosgrave’s true legacy is far less straightforward, and once the grieving and ceremony is over, should be remembered clearly by more sober minds.

The former Fine Gael leader, whose life in politics effectively ended after his government’s failed 1977 general election campaign, was the last real leadership link back to the ultra-conservative image of Fine Gael, best personified by men in dark suits and blue shirts.

After his political passing 40 years ago, the party turned to the liberal wing led by Garret Fitzgerald, and with him slowly became the more centrist party it is today — breaking with the conservative tradition that had for so long been its biggest weapon and most obvious flaw.

From Cosgrave’s Catholicism-steeped decision in 1974 to vote against his coalition government and oppose any decriminalisation of the use of condoms or the contraceptive pill by married couples on the grounds it would create a “permissive society”, Fine Gael slowly moved in a different direction under his successor.

Fitzgerald took a more forward-thinking approach, in keeping with the changing nature of the country, and which by the early 1990s, had seen various divisive debates on contraception, gay rights, divorce and abortion at least discussed if not always resolved.

And while these changes cannot simply be put down to the altered face of his party after he had left, the reality is the ending of his time in power marked a subtle but notable change in Fine Gael’s position which mirrored what was happening outside Leinster House.

As the tributes rained down in the Dáil on Thursday, politicians across the party divide echoed each others’ views by referring to the late Mr Cosgrave as a true leader who had been lost from the land.

The more nuanced references to his strongly-held principles, his “fine Christian nature” and his ability to accept defeat and leave the stage when his time was up, were the only subtle hints about his real legacy — of being the historical border for both party and country of what had been and what was to come.

Mr Cosgrave was not quite a saint, nor a sinner either. Instead, he was representative of old Ireland and its time.

With his political failure in 1977, his party broke with tradition and slowly began to embrace a more, if not quite, centrist approach which still frames its thinking to this day.

This, not the understandably sensitive tributes of recent days, is the former taoiseach’s true legacy. And it should be remembered as such when it comes to fairly discussing who he was and what kind of Ireland he has left behind.

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