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A wardheeler called Cosgrave

An assessment of the career of former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

16 October 2017

Liam Cosgrave and his father were alike in two ways. As everyone knows both headed 26 County governments. Less mentioned is the fact that each resembled a film star. William Thomas failed to look quite like Stanley Laurel only because of his moustache; Liam could be (and was) mistaken for Charlie Chaplin.  This is relevant because in the career of both there is the sense of an actor playing a role. This was not present in another Taoiseach such as Albert Reynolds who personified  his country’s bourgeoisie in its strokes and its claim to personal integrity. It was present in Liam Cosgrave’s antithesis, Charlie Haughty, but here the grand seigneur pretence was so outlandish that  it fooled very few. That of the Cosgraves,  if not alike to their actors was close enough to them to con many, particularly those who wanted to be conned. In the case of William Thomas, he was the clown, the porter in Macbeth giving necessary cover to the dark deeds, not as in the play, of his employers, but of his ministers. The most able of them, Kevin O’Higgins was assassinated, and Cosgrave had to cover for an uncontrolled repressive apparatus  and fell from power. The son learnt from this to be his own man of destiny, a role that fitted him to a glove, except that, mercifully, he had not the intelligence or authority to play it convincingly. Therein lies  the first paradox. The father had shown himself practically willing to sacrifice liberty and life for the cause of Ireland; it was the son who behaved as if he had done so.

The second paradox is this. When W.T.Cosgrave died, he left little money, a fact that was interpreted by a sycophantic media as showing how he had subordinated his life to serving the public. In fact the Cosgrave disregard for money was fuelled by a  more common fact: they had plenty of it. William Thomas was not a ‘man of no property’ either in the socialist or in the more limited republican sense. He had owned several public houses and the freeholds of some of them. In addition, he married  Louise Flanagan, heiress to a fortune that her father had amassed by claiming ownerless land and then, as a member of Dublin City Council,  persuading it to build on it. All this wealth was placed in trust subsequently so it would not have to be declared when Mr and Mrs William Thomas Cosgrave died.

Liam’s first appearance in politics came in the 1943 general election. Here he showed his outstanding talent: wardheeling.  in the constituency of Dublin County (then including Dun Laoghaire and Rathdown), he  was paired with the former Treatyite Minister, Desmond Fitzgerald to get the Catholic vote from the renegade Fine Gaeler Patrick Belton, while Harry Dockrell  mopped up the Protestants. Having sat for the area beforehand, Fitzgerald was expected by everyone, including himself to be the front runner; his campaign was mainly one of speeches extolling his record and quoting Aquinas. Meanwhile Liam Cosgrave exerted himself, giving the impression that he sought to knock on every door in the constituency. In the end, he was safe and dry and Fitzgerald was nowhere.. This caused great bitterness in the Fitzgerald clan, with Mrs Fitzgerald advocating  that the franchise be restricted.  The son, Garret put the blame on Cosgrave and Cosgrave knew it. Garret would serve in his party and his Government, but would never be trusted by him. He himself continued to exploit his talent more successfully than anything else he did. Even as Taoiseach, the order paper was crammed with questions from  ‘the Deputy for Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown’ asking his ministers about  concessions for his area, just in case his constituents had been inclined to believe that they had been won by another.

Meanwhile, Liam Cosgrave served as an undersecretary in the first inter-Party Government and was elevated in the second one to the post of Minister for External Affairs. As such, in 1956, he became the first such Irish minister to address the United Nations.  His speech was praised at the time, but it is best known now for an incident in its preparation. It had been written for him by two of his able ministerial staff, Frederick Boland and Conor Cruise O’Brien.  On reading it, Cosgrave admired it but expressed the wish that an addition be made calling on Arabs and Israelis to resolve their differences ‘like Christians’. O’Brien protested that this would hardly impress Arabs or Israelis; the more sophisticated Boland remarked that it would impress the voters in Cosgrave’s constituency. The line remained an aspiration. For many,  it was simply an example of the minister’s rather gawky wit; others suspected that he might have been in deadly earnest.

Nine years later, Liam Cosgrave became leader of Fine Gael. His election was an accomplished fact after, his predecessor, James Dillon named him. Dillon wanted to block Declan Costello whose mildly progressive ‘Just Society’ proposals he considered too extreme. Though Cosgrave  had supported them, he could be trusted to keep them within  safe limits, standing between Costello and the right winger Gerald Sweetman, who would lead too far for the party in the other direction.

Cosgrave kept his party’s strength in the 1969 general election. It was not enough for his left wing, for whom Garret Fitzgerald had become the leading spokesman. Discontent increased, but was then overshadowed by what was termed the Arms Crisis.

After more than forty years too much of this business remains a mystery. It is not clear whether there were any arms and, if so, what happened to them. What is certain is that Taoiseach Jack Lynch fired two of his most able ministers on the grounds that they had been conspiring to supply arms to the resistance fighters in Northern Ireland and that Charlie Haughey and several others were prosecuted but acquitted for doing so. The accused men gained little credit from the affair (outside Donegal) among Anti-imperialists  of whom most knew their record. Lynch and Cosgrave gained status from this as firm defenders of constitutional democracy. The known facts tarnish their reputations. In Lynch’ case, he had no policy on partition and took several days to respond  when he heard the allegations. He asked for advice from his predecessor, Sean Lemass, but was told, with Lemass’ usual gruffness. ‘You’re the Taoiseach.’ There is reason to believe that his final action was less to do with possible arms and more to do with getting rid of ministers who were too big for their boots. Cosgrave’s role is even more puzzling. He brought the rumours to Lynch, but he did so in secret. His first idea was to raise them in the mail, procedurally the proper form of action. Then he tried to leak them to the Independent. Only after this, did he inform the Taoiseach. The final certainty is that the whole business did him no harm. The leadership of the Labour Party had refused to make any deal with Fine Gael in the previous election and was regarded by many as having caused Cosgrave to lose it thereby, Now they had an excuse to stampede in the other direction. They fixed a special conference to pass  a motion that they were in business for coalition. The way for Fine Gael was cleared.

One last hurdle was erected. The outgoing Government moved an amendment to the Offences Against the State Act tightening its coercive powers somewhat. Cosgrave’s party opposed it. Cosgrave did not. His leadership was in danger. Just in time, British Secret Service  agents exploded bombs in Dublin with fatal results. Fine Gael rallied behind its leader to pass the act. Though Labour had opposed it, the bombs made it easier for it to negotiate a common programme for government with Cosgrave. The general election made him Taoiseach.

Insofar as there is any difference between the two major parties in the twenty-six county state, Fianna Fail represents the new and aspiring entrepreneurs. Fine Gael’s base is in old money (including big farmers).  Both preach cross-class co-operation, but Fine Gael is readier to enforce it by open action through the government  over which it acted as midwife in alliance with the Labour Party, whereas Fianna Fail presents it as a social matter, business negotiating with unions (too much interference by its government might weaken its plebeian image.).This appeared in the difference between the new Government’s strategy and that of its predecessor. Both expected the sixties boom to continue. However, Cosgrave felt able to give Labour full authority to bring in long overdue reforms in health, housing, welfare and working conditions, without the Lynch Government’s dead hand in these spheres. In three of them, they were successful. James Tully built houses,  Frank Cluskey extended the boundaries of social welfare and Michael O’Leary brought working conditions  (including gender equality) into something suitable to the twentieth century. Only the party leader, Brendan Corish disappointed at Health. These achievements did not only  bring much needed reform to their spheres, they also tied Labour into government regardless of that Government’s defects

A major failing was economic.  When the government took power, there were signs that the boom was slowing. The last years of Lynch’ Government had been ones of limited deficit financing.  Within months of Cosgrave becoming Taoiseach, matters worsened further with  the middle eastern powers facing an hike in oil prices. Businesses closed, jobs were lost and the state found itself in recession.  The government response was austerity, and when this did not work, more austerity. The European Economic Community (now the E.U.) had to force it to agree to  allow the right of equal pay for equal work for women and men. O’Leary ’s workplace reforms offered nothing to people who just wanted jobs. The social welfare reforms were no substitute for that lack. Fianna Fail  took heart and prepared a programme that seemed to offer a solution.

The trouble was that the government had no economic policy except  austerity. Its one major economic initiative had come from its Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Conor Cruise O’Brien; though woefully (and proudly) ignorant of economics, he could recognise the backwardness of the telephone system and persuaded the Department of Finance to releases funds to modernise it. This was in the very beginning of his term. For the remainder, there were no new initiatives. Anything that might be considered to infringe private property rights was avoided. Cosgrave led his ministers in rejecting the Kenny Report for reducing building costs (and, it must be admitted that  subsequent Governments have continued this rejection.)  Proposals to nationalise  mineral reserves with the possibility of basing new industries upon them  were overlooked in favour of handing them over to private enterprise to export them to other countries to process. The only dent in this kowtowing to private property was the reluctant introduction of a tax on wealth. Its assessment did reveal something of the corruption amongst the possessing classes, but as a tax it raised little money and it was denounced as inhibiting capital accumulation by Fianna Fail, which  abolished it promptly on taking power. The policy of dependence on foreign capitalism was being shown be as bankrupt in the longterm as that of capitalist autarchy had been. Nobody admitted it.

This was accompanied by actual regression in other spheres. Cosgrave boasted of his role in negotiating the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement. to end the struggle in Northern Ireland. In fact, agreement was limited to the politicians, and not all of them. Probably a majority of the six county population  was against it, albeit for opposing reasons.  When it was smashed by action of the Loyalist workers, Cosgrave shrugged and said ’So the Protestants have won.’ For the nest three years of his term,  he acted to enforce this victory for the Protestants, and for British imperialism. He enforced his state’s one commitment under Sunningdale, the trial of suspects for extraditable offences committed in the UK. Beyond this, he was aided by  his justice minister Patrick Cooney (who, in opposition had been associated with his critics whom he had characterised as ‘mongrel foxes’) and by Conor Cruise O’Brien. There was general persecution of anti-imperialists. A group within the Gardai known as the Heavy Gang stepped up the torture of republican suspects. Cruise O’Brien denounced the singing of rebel songs and  declared that he was keeping a blacklist of Government critics. Meanwhile, there was little hue or cry after the Loyalist perpetrators of the worst massacre of Ireland’s thirty years war, the bombing of Dublin and Monaghan. All this was in the name of  protecting a state that was, as one of its minor opponents knows, in little danger of being overthrown by physical force. The hypocrisy of this policy was exposed by Cosgrave himself.  At the end of 1976, his close associate, the Minister for Defence, Patrick Donegan denounced the President publicly as a ‘thundering disgrace’ (some say the adjective was more obscene) for referring a new piece of coercive legislation to the Supreme Court to declare on its constitutionality. Despite the obvious slur on an institution of the state of which the Government portrayed itself as sole defender, Cosgrave refused to fire his crony and the President resigned.  Shortly afterwards, at the last Fine Gael Ard Fheis before the general election, Cosgrave himself went ape, sneered at civil rights campaigners and denounced his critics, telling them to ‘blow-out or blow up’, a term of metaphors unsuitable to a regime that claimed to be opposed to (republican) bombers.

There remained the sphere of liberal reform. Shortly after taking power. the Supreme Court declared the ban on contraceptives to be unconstitutional. The Government reacted with a Bill to  regulate the distribution. Cosgrave remained silent when it was discussed  in cabinet, insisting only that the Government’s Oireachtas vote on it be open.  He stayed silent during the debate and then voted against it. His unofficial fan club saw this as another example of his high Catholic principles. They remarked, too, that his fellow dissidents  would have made up a negative vote with Fianna Fail to ensure the Bill was defeated.  Others recognised  his act as a failure to lead, to put his case, to regulate contraceptive distribution, which remained unregulated for five years. No doubt, in the eyes of his Church, this endangered many more souls than just Liam’s. It was the sort of positive result that that is achieved by unduly machiavellian means, or, as in this case, just by messing. Otherwise, welcome moves were made to remove legal disabilities on women. The marriage bar in the civil service was ended. In addition, they won the right to jury service on the same terms as men, though this was achieved through legal action.

Nonetheless,  the Government called a general election, expecting that an easy ride in bye-election results would be reflected  statewide. It has been criticised for not preparing a new programme for government, though it is difficult to know what it could have put in it., without a complete capitulation by Labour to Cosgrave’s Fine Gael (a very possible  scenario). In any case, Cosgrave was himself now a liability; his arbitrary attitude to  law and order did not reassure but frighten. His adminstration’s resulting lacklustre campaign might have reminded him of that of his old rival, Desmond Fitzgerald in 1943; there is no evidence that it did.

The Government was defeated. Cooney and Cruise O’Brien were amongst those who lost their seats. Cosgrave left the Taoiseachship at the Park to be returned to Jack Lynch, and then resigned his party leadership to  his old nemesis Garret Fitzgerald. In the next decade, he must have got a certain satisfaction noting how the economist was no better than he at resolving the problems of recession. By then, however, he had retired from  the Dail. His son succeeded him there, only to lose his seat and later his membership of Fine Gael.  Some compensation was given the father by Fine Gael’s landslide victory in 2011. What he thought of its seat losses in 2016 is not recorded.

Cosgrave had energy and determination. His 1973 victory had been generally welcomed, in that there was a feeling that some sort of change was needed from the unimaginative  conservatism of  Lynch. Inevitably, there was disagreement as to what sort of change was required. Probably, had Labour maintained its previous independence, it would  have strengthened its position, despite Fianna Fail continuing in power,  and be strongly placed in the next contest. There comes the problem; Labour had no more of a solution to the national question than Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, or, in its strategy, the Republican Movement. None of these have ever questioned the class nature of state power in Ireland, let alone generally. All that can be said is that the electorate of the Republic abandoned King Log for a new ruler and then, when he revealed himself as King Stork, abandoned him with relief for the old Log. The moral (not Aesop’s) is that the working people need their own revolutionary party to lead them to organise to take state power. Like all morals, it is easier said than done.

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