Leo Varadkar became Ireland’s 14th different head of government earlier this month. Here, Ryle Dwyer assesses the legacies left behind by the Taoiseach’s predecessors.
Leo Varadkar is the 14th different head of government since independence, but he is actually the 13th taoiseach. Some of those served interrupted terms, such as Éamon de Valera and Charles Haughey, who were each elected on three separate occasions.
The Irish term, An Taoiseach, which translates as The Leader in English, Der Führer in German, or Il Duce in Italian, was introduced with the new Irish Constitution on December 29, 1937. The 14 different heads of government were:
WT (William Thomas) Cosgrave
He was elected the first head of government when the Irish Free State was formally established on December 6, 1932. His official title was president of the Executive Council.
He served during the harrowing period of the civil war. On his first full day in formal office he was faced with the shooting of two government deputies as they left the Dáil.
The government responded by executing four prominent Republican prisoners, basically sending the message that it was prepared to avenge such shootings by executing twice as many Republican prisoners.
“I am not going to hesitate if the country is to live,” warned Cosgrave. “If we have to exterminate 10,000 Republicans, the 3m of our people is greater than this 10,000.”
Even his harshest critics were prepared to admit that he distinguished himself in the way he left office in 1932. He handed over power to his Civil War enemy, Éamon de Valera, when the latter was elected president of the Executive Council.
Cosgrave refused to have anything to do with the efforts of Garda commissioner Eoin O’Duffy to organise a coup d’etat. In the process, Cosgrave made an invaluable contribution to democracy.
Éamon de Valera
He became second president of the Executive Council in 1932 and his proposal to change the title of the Office to An Taoiseach was formally ratified by the Irish people in 1937.
Born in the US, de Valera was the only foreign-born head of the Irish government, and also the first whose Cuban-Spanish–born father had no Irish background. From the outset, de Valera proclaimed his determination to dismantle the trappings of British dominion in Ireland.
“Let us remove these forms one by one,” he said, “so that this State that we control may be a Republic in fact and that, when the time comes, the proclaiming of the Republic may involve no more than a ceremony, the formal confirmation of a status already attained.”
Despite strong British economic pressure, he dismantled the 1921 Treaty by introducing an essentially republican constitution, and then he conclusively demonstrated Irish independence by keeping Ireland out of the Second World War.
The suggestion he was indifferent to the Allied cause was a gross distortion. From the outset, he secretly promised to provide the British — and later the Americans — with all possible help, short of war. By fulfilling that promise, he essentially provided the Allies with all the help they desired, because they did not want Ireland in the war.
De Valera went on to serve two other separate terms as taoiseach, from 1951-54, and 1957-59 before stepping down to become President of Ireland.
The third head of government was elected taoiseach in 1948 at the head of an inter-party government, which was distinguished by the declaration of the Republic in 1949.
The government also established the Industrial Development Authority, and made great strides in the area of housing by achieving record construction figures. It was further distinguished by tackling the tuberculosis crisis under the direction of health minister Noel Browne, who also sought to confront the country’s high infant mortality rate by introducing the Mother and Child Scheme. When this ran into the opposition of the Catholic hierarchy, Costello buckled. “I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong,” Costello proclaimed. Browne was figuratively thrown to the wolves. The taoiseach called a general election in the 1951 and was narrowly defeated in his quest to retain power by 74 votes to 72.
Costello’s second government, from 1954-57, was undermined by the Border Campaign in Northern Ireland. Seán MacBride essentially pulled the plug on the government, which was roundly rejected in the general election of 1957.
At less than a month short of his 60th birthday, Seán Francis Lemass (1899-1971) was the oldest person to become taoiseach for the first time.
He is widely regarded as the architect of modern Ireland, as a result of his fostering industrial growth and his promotion of free trade, even though he first distinguished himself in government as the foremost proponent of economic protectionism. As taoiseach, he paved the way for Ireland’s eventual entry into the European Economic Community, which he enthusiastically promoted.
He surrounded himself with able advisers such as TK Whitaker, the brilliant economist responsible for the First Programme for Economic Expansion.
Lemass also selected some particularly capable ministers, such as Donogh O’Malley, who introduced probably the most effective initiative ever taken by any Irish minister when he announced plans for free secondary education.
As external affairs minister, Frank Aiken took a bold, independent stand in supporting the admission of China to the UN. The taoiseach’s own son-in-law, Charles Haughey, was regarded as a brilliant, reforming justice minister, in which post, he helped end the IRA’s Border Campaign, and thereby helped to pave the way for Lemass to develop a warm relationship with prime minister Terence O’Neill of Northern Ireland.
The first Irish head of government born in the 20th century. He succeeded Lemass in 1966, but will probably be best remembered for having kept this country out of what could have been a second civil war in 1969 — this time over Northern Ireland.
His government was plagued by the Arms Crisis, in which some of his ministers connived with the IRA in relation to Northern Ireland. Ministers Charles Haughey, Neil Blaney, and Kevin Boland were involved with Captain James Kelly, who was advocating “armed action” to achieve “the aim of unification”. Kelly argued that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” In using him, the ministers were essentially toying with civil war.
After pulling the plug on them, Lynch kept his cool, endearing himself to the nation. He essentially steered the country into the European Economic Community in 1973.
Although he was ousted from office shortly afterwards, he will be remembered for having come back to lead Fianna Fáil in 1977 to the greatest overall majority ever achieved by any party in the history of the State. He was probably the most popular Irish politician since Daniel O’Connell.
He became the sixth different head of government on March 14, 1973. He is the oldest of the five surviving ex-taoisigh, and also the oldest former head of government in Europe.
His one-term government was depicted as being of “all the talents”, because it included such distinguished performers as Garret FitzGerald, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Justin Keating, all of whom had earned doctorates in their fields. Cosgrave joked about being lucky to get into the cabinet himself in the midst of such distinguished company.
The coalition was plagued by the oil crisis in autumn 1973 that contributed to high inflation. The government worked hard to secure the Sunningdale agreement of 1973, which, with its power-sharing concept, was a prototype for the Good Friday Agreement a quarter of a century later. Sunningdale was undermined by intense loyalist opposition and some of the worst outrages of the Troubles.
Cosgrave compounded his political misfortune by voting against his own government’s bill to legalise the sale of artificial contraceptives, and by his handling of the controversy surrounding the resignation of President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, who was unfairly criticised for conscientiously carrying out his duties of office.
He had performed brilliantly in four different ministries before succeeding Lynch as taoiseach in 1979. The economy got into trouble as a result of the extravagant election promises of 1977. After assuming office, Haughey addressed the nation on these difficulties.
“As a community, we are living away beyond our means,” he warned, but then made things worse by allowing public spending to run out of control. He was further dogged by the H-Block hunger strikes in the North , and was ousted after the general election of 1981.
He managed to alternate twice with Garret FitzGerald. Haughey returned to power following the general election in early 1982, but his government was dogged by the amazing series of GUBU scandals, and he was ousted again in November after the third general election in 18 months.
He survived a whole series of internal heaves to oust him as Fianna Fáil leader before winning a third term as taoiseach in 1987.
Although he did manage to turn the economy around during his third term, he was undermined by his imperious style and his outrageous abuse of power in enriching himself. Some of those who had earlier been his strongest supporters ousted him in 1992.
As the son of a Protestant mother from Northern Ireland and a Catholic minister in the first Cosgrave government, Garret FitzGerald sought to break the political stranglehold of the Catholic hierarchy and develop a pluralist Ireland.
In contrast with the imperious style of his predecessor, FitzGerald sought consensus by allowing meetings to drag on for hours.
As a minority coalition, his first government was of a particularly short duration, brought down in early 1982 over efforts to control public spending.
He managed to get back later the same year, but ran into further difficulties over his policies of fiscal rectitude. He succeeded in preventing the financial crisis from getting worse but did not enjoy the internal support to take the decisive action that would generate economic growth. As a result, his government became deeply unpopular.
Although he managed to introduce some changes in relation to contraception, FitzGerald’s efforts to remove the constitutional ban on divorce were decisively rejected by the electorate in 1986. But he undoubtedly prepared the groundwork for his successors to achieve the kind of pluralist changes that he desired.
Became the 10th head of government in February 1992. He prided himself in being a gambler, and his political tactics seemed to border on the reckless. He was deeply involved in pushing Lynch and in ousting Haughey in an internal party heave, but he also brought down his own two governments.
He was the first of three taoisigh whose overall tenures lasted less than three years. As the fifth leader of Fianna Fáil, he was first taoiseach to lead continuous governments with different parties. The coalition that he inherited with the Progressive Democrats — which he depicted as a “temporary little arrangement” — collapsed after he essentially accused its leader of perjuring himself in testimony before the Beef tribunal.
After the ensuing general election in November 1992, Reynolds remained in government by forming another coalition, this time with Labour. But it came unstuck over his efforts to appoint a former attorney general as president of the High Court without the support of his coalition partners.
Rather than call a general election after Labour withdrew from government, Reynolds took the unprecedented step of handing over to the leader of the opposition, who formed a different government with the support of Labour.
He had the shortest tenure of all taoisigh — barely two years and six months, from December 1994 to June 1997. He had seemed poised to become taoiseach after the 1992 general election, but his chances were scuppered when he was unable to come to a coalition arrangement with Dick Spring, the leader of the Labour Party.
Bruton came from the more conservative wing of Fine Gael. He was a strong admirer of John Redmond — the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party before independence. Bruton had portraits in his office as taoiseach of Redmond and Lemass, the latter of whom he considered to have been the best and most reforming taoiseach.
Many were surprised at Bruton’s first policy initiative — calling a referendum to remove the constitution proscription against divorce. He carried this narrowly, thus, succeeding where FitzGerald had failed.
Bruton also made a valuable contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process, even though many were often critical of him for being too ready to accommodate unionists.
Indeed, Albert Reynolds once famously referred to him as “John Unionist”, but Bruton was strongly critical of the British government’s reluctance to deal with Sinn Féin in furthering the peace process.
He became taoiseach on June 26, 1997. He played a significant part in negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, both by developing a valuable friendship with British prime minister Tony Blair, and by impressing unionist leaders with his dedication to the task during critical negotiations around the time his mother’s death.
His first term was marked by the development of the Celtic Tiger economy. In 2002 he became the first taoiseach since Lynch to retain power after a general election. During his second term, his government introduced the internationally acclaimed smoking ban, but this term was tarnished by the development of the property bubble.
Although he won re-election after the general election of 2007, the clouds were gathering. His resignation was precipitated by the controversy arising out of revelations about his private finances at the Mahon Tribunal.
As details emerged, his position as taoiseach became untenable. He stepped down on May 7, 2008, after almost 11 years in office, second to only de Valera in terms of longevity.
He was taoiseach from May 2008 until March 2011. Having previously been the finance minister, he was roundly blamed when the country became enmeshed in the financial and banking crises. Ultimately his government had to request the EU and IMF to come to Ireland’s rescue, which was widely viewed as national humiliation.
Fianna Fáil’s popular support plummeted to a record low, as did Cowen’s own standing. With an approval rating of just 8% by the time the 30th Dáil was dissolved, he was the least popular incumbent taoiseach in the history of Irish public-opinion polling.
Recognising the hopelessness of his position, he not only stepped down as party leader but also retired from politics. Micheál Martin was elected party leader on January 27, but Cowen remained as taoiseach until the Dáil could elect his successor, following the general election of February 25, 2011.
The election was a humiliation for Fianna Fáil. Its first-preference vote declined by more than half since 2007, and the party — which had always been the largest political party since it first contested a general election in 1927 — was reduced to third place with 20 seats.
He led Fine Gael to historic heights in 2011. The 76 seats that the party won was not only its largest total ever, but also the first time it became the largest party in the Dáil. He formed a coalition government with the Labour Party on March 9, 2011.
At the time he was little over a month short of his 60th birthday, so he was the second oldest person on first assuming the office, just 24 days younger than Lemass had been. One of his first acts in office was to slash his own pay by €14,000, along with other members of the government, thus affording good, constructive example.
He took a particularly brave stand against the Vatican and the Irish Catholic hierarchy on the question of clerical paedophile abuse following the publication in July 2011 of the Cloyne Report into the paedophile abuse by 19 priests in the Diocese of Cloyne.
Contrary to Church guidelines, the vast majority of allegations had not been reported to the gardaí. The taoiseach warned that “the historic relationship between Church and State in Ireland could not be the same again”. In 2016, Kenny became the first Fine Gael taoiseach to be re-elected, and he became the longest-serving Fine Gael taoiseach in April 2017. In addition, he is currently the longest-serving deputy in the Dáil.
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