Liam Cosgrave’s monumental legacy is that he put the nation’s security and the national interest before party considerations, writes Ryle Dwyer
William “Liam” Michael Cosgrave was born in Castleknock, Dublin, on April 13, 1920.
He was the eldest son of the W.T. Cosgrave, who became president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State from 1923 to 1932.
Educated at Synge Street CBS and Castleknock College, Liam Cosgrave studied law at King’s Inn and was called to the Bar on June 21, 1943.
Two days later he was elected to Dáil Éireann from the Dublin County constituency.
Although Fianna Fáil lost its overall majority in that general election, it retained power as a minority government.
Cosgrave was re-elected on the first count in 1944 and changed to Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown constituency for the 1948 general election.
When Fine Gael returned to power at the head of the National Coalition in 1948, Cosgrave was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach and Chief Whip.
He retained his seat on the first count in 1951, and headed the poll in the next seven general elections, extending over 30 years.
In 1954, he was appointed Minister for External Affairs in the Second Interparty Government.
He headed the Irish delegation, when the country was admitted to the United Nations in 1955.
He outlined a foreign policy based on three fundamental principles: (1) adherence to the UN Charter, (2) independence and non-alignment, (3) “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.”
While back in opposition later, Cosgrave raised many eyebrows by essentially endorsing Éamon de Valera’s effort to abolish Proportional Representation in June 1959.
Cosgrave’s independence possibly cost him the party leadership four months later, when he was decisively defeated by James Dillon in a leadership contest.
During the 1960s, Cosgrave supported Declan Costello’s Just Society proposals.
After Fine Gael failed to oust Fianna Fáil in the general election of 1965, Dillon stepped down, and Cosgrave was decisively elected as Fine Gael leader.
He played a particularly important role during the Arms Crisis of 1970 after a senior Garda informed him of involvement of members of the Government in a conspiracy to import arms for the IRA in Northern Ireland.
Cosgrave put pressure on Taoiseach Jack Lynch, who responded by demanding the resignations of Neil Blaney and Charles Haughey. He then dismissed them when they refused to step down.
Cosgrave behaved in a statesmanlike way throughout the ensuing political upheaval. He put national security and the national interest before party considerations.
Ignoring internal party pressure, he passed up the opportunity to embarrass Lynch’s government by refusing to oppose its anti-terrorist legislation.
Cosgrave decisively confronted his party critics at the Fine Gael Árd Fheis in May 1972. He alluded to them as “mongrel foxes.”
That November he bravely supported the Offences Against the State (Amendment), even though most of his party seemed anxious to exploit the situation to embarrass the Fianna Fáil Government.
Cosgrave was rewarded for his courage on March 14, 1973 by being elected Taoiseach at the head of a Fine Gael–Labour Coalition.
His cabinet represented the broad spread of opinion within the coalition, with the inclusion of such luminaries as Garret FitzGerald, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Peter Barry, Justin Keating, and Mark Clinton.
It was a Government of “all the talents,” according to Cosgrave.
His style of leadership was that of a chairman, determined to implement the agreed policies of the coalition arrangement.
The coalition ran into difficulties in October 1974 when the international “Oil Shock,” provoked extensive inflation.
After the Supreme Court overturned a law banning the importation of contraceptives for married couples, Justice Minister Paddy Cooney introduced legislation to regulate the situation, but Fianna Fáil opposed this in a naked attempt to exploit the situation.
Cosgrave insisted on a free vote in the Dáil, and then shocked his colleagues by voting against his own government’s legislation.
Following the death of President Erskine Childers in November 1974, the government agreed on the selection of a non-political President — Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, a former Chief Justice.
When the government passed an Emergency Powers Bill, in the wake of the IRA’s assassination of Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British Ambassador to Ireland, the President exercised his prerogative to refer the bill to the Supreme Court, which upheld the legislation.
The President then signed it into law on October 16, 1976, the same day as the murder of a Garda.
Apparently feeling the delay had contributed to the Garda’s death, Defence Minister Paddy Donegan sparked a constitutional crisis by denouncing the President as a “thundering disgrace.”
Donegan tried to apologise personally, but Ó Dálaigh refused to meet him. Cosgrave then retaliated by refusing to accept Donegan’s resignation.
Ó Dálaigh resigned as President on October 22, 1976 “to protect the dignity and independence of the presidency as an institution.” Cosgrave had scored a political own goal.
Fianna Fáil won a record majority in the general election of 1977 with extravagant election promises. Cosgrave promptly stood down as Fine Gael leader, and he retired from politics at the end of the Dáil term in 1981.
His monumental legacy was in putting the national interest before politics.
It was his misfortune that he was faced with Jack Lynch, the most popular Irish politician of the century.
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