Liam Cosgrave tribute: An officer and a gentleman

Liam Cosgrave was humble but played a key role in politics and will be remembered as doing the State exemplary service, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

AN OFFICER and a gentleman is how Liam Cosgrave should be remembered.

A humble modest man who eschewed many of the trappings of power, Cosgrave rather saw his time as taoiseach as a duty to be fulfilled.

Son of WT Cosgrave — who was president of the newly born Executive Council of the Irish Free State — Liam Cosgrave held many of the same attributes of his father.

He assumed the mantle of taoiseach just over 50 years after his father was elected leader following the untimely deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins in August 1922.

The Fine Gael-Labour coalition which served between 1973 and 1977 was one which was confronted with severe national and international crises — the Northern troubles and a global oil crisis — yet it held together remarkably well despite those and other turmoils.

Former Fine Gael Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave speaking at the Fine Gael 50th Anniversary in 1983. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Born on April 13, 1920, he was educated at Castleknock College, Dublin, studied law at King’s Inns, and was called to the Irish bar in 1943.

Before that in 1940, he joined the wartime Irish army as a private alongside 200,000 others. He was commissioned into the supply and transport corp and left the army when called to the Bar.

In that same year he entered Dáil Éireann as its youngest TD and he retained his seat until his retirement from politics in 1981.

In 1948, when the first interparty government replaced Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil, which had been in power for 16 years, Cosgrave became parliamentary secretary to the taoiseach and to the minister for industry and commerce.

Despite being of significant importance, the coalition did not last long and lost power in 1951 after three years of rule.

But in a second interparty government (1954–57), Cosgrave became the senior minister for external affairs and led the first Irish delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1956.

In 1965, the low-key Cosgrave succeeded James Dillon as leader of the Fine Gael party.

He played a key role in the Arms Crisis, when, as leader of the opposition, he informed Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach, Jack Lynch, about his senior ministers who were involved in importing arms intended for the Provisional IRA.

In 1973, as leader of a coalition government in which Fine Gael combined forces with the Labour Party, he became taoiseach.

The Prince of Wales speaks to former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald at Glencairn House in May this year. Picture: PA

His relationship with the the Labour leader Brendan Corish was vital to the success of the coalition. The two men were genuine friends and enjoyed each other’s company.

On one occasion, as recounted in Stephen Collins’ book, The Cosgrave Legacy, a major row erupted over proposed cuts to social welfare in the budget.

After tense exchanges, Cosgrave and Corish departed from the Cabinet room and disappeared into the taoiseach’s office.

The rocky meeting had led many to think the government was on the verge of collapse and intrigue swept through Leinster House that a snap election was in the offing.

After several hours, an official was dispatched up to the office to see how things were going and upon entering, the official was met with the sight of the two parties leaders drinking whiskey watching the horse racing from Cheltenham.

The coalition survived.

A devout Roman Catholic, Cosgrave was intensely conservative on social issues and shocked his cabinet colleagues by voting against his own government’s bill on liberalising the sale of contraceptives in 1974.

In the run-up to the vote, Cosgrave had kept his own intentions quiet and refused repeatedly to tell his ministers how he intended to vote.

All he would say is that there would be a free vote but there was still considerable shock when he walked through the lobbies in the Dáil to oppose his own administration’s proposal.

As Barry Desmond said, Cosgrave accepted the pope’s teachings on divorce and contraception lock stock and barrel, and questioned why so many people were shocked at his actions.

Cosgrave too was a man of habit. Even as taoiseach he would travel home to Beech Park every lunch to dine with his wife Vera. He would leave Government Buildings at about 12.45 and return shortly after 2pm.

He was also intensely private and most ministers never got to know his home number. Only his top official Dermot Nally would dare interrupt in extreme circumstances.

Cosgrave too never lost sight of the importance of where his democratic mandate stemmed from.

Liam Cosgrave who passed away today arrives with his daughter Anna at the Church of St Therese at Mount Merrion where the Papal Nuncio celebrated a mass to mark World Day of Peace in 2013.

His press secretary, Muris Mac Conghail, recalled a story about him attending a major European summit only to send a note out of the room demanding an update on an ongoing strike at Blackrock Post Office.

One of his major events while in office, Cosgrave and British prime minister Edward Heath led intergovernmental conference at Sunningdale in December 1973, which gave birth to Northern Ireland’s first if ill-fated power-sharing executive (1973–74).

He was also taoiseach during the resignation scandal of President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh after he was branded a “thundering disgrace” by defence minister Paddy Donegan.

He also led Ireland’s first delegation to the United Nations, where he won widespread acclaim.

Despite the good relations between Fine Gael and Labour, the so-called National Coalition was defeated in the general election of June 1977 by Charles Haughey’s Fianna Fail and he resigned as Fine Gael leader.

In 1981, Cosgrave retired as Dáil Deputy for Dún Laoghaire to be replaced by his son Liam T Cosgrave.

Following his resignation, he largely withdrew from public life but did make a number of public appearances including during the 2016 Easter Rising Commemorations.

In 2011, Cosgrave dismissed as “nauseating nonsense” the suggestion that Ireland no longer needed an army.

Speaking at the launch in Dublin of a new book dealing with the on the Irish Army during the Second World War, Mr Cosgrave said it was very important to maintain an army, because violence tends to break out “every five to 10 years”.

Warm tributes, led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, were paid last night following the news of his death.

More than most, it could be said he did the State some service.

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