Name: Liam Cosgrave
Party: Fine Gael
Terms: March 1973-July 1977
I started this project in part because I’m ridiculously ignorant on the politics of my own country. Seriously, I can tell you who the current House Minority Leader in the United States is and can name around half of the six million Republican presidential candidates but for the love of God don’t ask me who my local TD is. And my knowledge of the Taoisigh was spotty at best. Liam Cosgrave is one that I knew next to nothing about going in and I gotta say, having read up on him?
Not a fan.
Cosgrave was the son of none other than W.T. Cosgrave, our first Taoiseach.
He was elected to the Dáil in the forties during his father’s long period as leader of the opposition before being appointed Minister for External Affairs (great name, innit?) under John Costello during which time he finally got Ireland into the UN where the USSR had been vetoing our membership for around a decade.
In 1965 Cosgrave ran for leadership of Fine Gael and won it in a walk, as both the heir of the party’s first parliamentary leader and a pretty accomplished politician in his own right. Cosgrave soon began pissing away that goodwill as he seemed to have a funny idea about what the leader of the opposition is supposed to do. Cosgrave hated militant republicans the way God hates the Oxford comma and when Jack Lynch’s government brought in some fairly draconian anti-terrorism legislation Cosgrave backed the government to the hilt, to the horror of the more liberal elements of his own party. By the time the fiftieth anniversary of the State had rolled around many of these liberals were looking to oust him from the leadership position. Cosgrave addressed their concerns calmly and reasonably in an address at Fine Gael’s Ard Fheis (party conference) saying “… some of these commentators and critics are now like mongrel foxes; they are gone to ground but I’ll dig them out, and the pack will chop them when they get them”.
As there’s nothing like a froth flecked rant to prove to the public that you’re fit for higher office, Cosgrave led Fine Gael to victory in the 1973 election (with Labour in the “plucky sidekick” role). In power, Cosgrave faded into the background somewhat, often overshadowed by the more colorful personalities in his cabinet ; which included future Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, controversial diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien and TV presenter Justin Keating. Cosgrave’s government was a weird mix of the progressive and the reactionary, and they pushed through a range of taxes on the wealthy (which pushed them right into the arms of Fianna Fáil). The bad stuff, though, is pretty damn bad. Cosgrave was probably the worst Taoiseach we’ve ever had in terms of protecting Freedom of the Press (with the possible exception of DeValera who at least had the second world war as an excuse), something that put him on a direct collision course with the President, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh. I mentioned in the introduction that the President is almost wholly a ceremonial position, but one of the few powers he or she has is the right to refer proposed laws to the Supreme Court for signing. After the assassination of the British ambassador to Ireland, Cosgrave’s government had passed the Emergency Powers Act, a name that just screams “we really took our time with this one just to make sure we weren’t over-reacting”. The bill then landed on Ó Dálaigh’s desk to be signed into law. Instead of simply stamping it and running off to play with Ser Pounce, Ó Dálaigh exercised his constitutional right to refer the bill to the Supreme Court, who duly decided that it was constitutional. Ó’Dálaigh shrugged, and signed the thing in to law. However, the same day a police officer was killed by republicans and some members of Cosgrave’s government essentially blamed Ó’Dálaigh for the killing. Ridiculous, of course. No one is going to take advantage of a brief delay in passing legislation to murder a cop. But the situation came to a head when the Minister for Defense, Paddy Donegan, visited an army barracks and publicly referred to Ó’Dálaigh as a “thundering disgrace”.
There are some things which, once said, cannot be unsaid. Donegan offered his resignation to Cosgrave, but this was refused. Ó’Dálaigh, who’d been dicked around by Cosgrave’s government from day one, quite rightly said “thunder this” and retired with his dignity intact.
On the economic front, Cosgrave’s government saw the country return to high unemployment and an income tax rate that would make even a dyed in the wool lefty like myself go “Ah here.”: 77%.
And so, in 1977 Jack Lynch led Fianna Fáil back to power with a massive majority.
- Thanks to Cosgrave’s government you no longer have to be fluent in Irish to get your Leaving Certificate (high school diploma).
- Also thanks to Cosgrave’s government women no longer have to retire once they get married.
- There’s more? There’s more. As I mentioned above, Cosgrave really was just a massive prick to Ó’Dálaigh, refusing him permission to receive the French Legion d’Honneur and going to Washington for St. Patrick’s day in his place. I wouldn’t be surprised if Liam Cosgrave hoarded all his Christmas presents and Easter eggs and opened them while Ó’Dálaigh sat crying in the little room under the stairs.
- On a far more serious note, his government sued The Irish Press after they revealed that republican prisoners were tortured in custody by a group of Gardaí interrogators called “The Heavy Gang”.
- Oh yeah, there was a group of Gardaí interrogators called “The Heavy Gang” and the name had nothing to do with their weight.
- When his party brought forward a measure to legalise contraception, Cosgrave actually crossed party lines and voted against his own government to defeat it.
- Seriously. This thundering guy.