Liam Cosgrave: Wikis


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Liam Cosgrave

In office
14 March 1973 – 5 July 1977
Tánaiste Brendan Corish
Preceded by Jack Lynch
Succeeded by Jack Lynch

In office
2 June 1954 – 20 March 1957
Preceded by Frank Aiken
Succeeded by Frank Aiken

Born 13 April 1920 (1920-04-13) (age 89)
Dublin, Ireland
Political party Fine Gael
Religion Roman Catholicism

Liam Cosgrave (Irish: Liam Mac Cosgair; born 13 April 1920) served as the Taoiseach of Ireland between 1973 and 1977 and is the son of W. T. Cosgrave, Head of Government from 1922 to 1932). Liam Cosgrave entered Irish politics in 1943 and retained his seat until his retirement in 1981.


Early life

From an early age Liam Cosgrave displayed a keen interest in politics, discussing the topic with his father as a teenager before eventually joining Fine Gael at the age of 17, speaking at his first public meeting the same year. He was educated at Castleknock College, Dublin, and King's Inns. He studied law and was called to the Irish bar in 1943. To the surprise of his family, Liam decided to seek election to Dáil Éireann in the 1943 general election and was elected as a Teachta Dála (TD) for Dublin County at the age of 23, sitting in the 11th Dáil alongside his father W. T. Cosgrave who was one of the founders of the Irish Free State in the 1920s. Cosgrave rapidly rose through the ranks of Fine Gael, becoming a parliamentary secretary when the party returned to power in 1948.


The first coalition Government collapsed in 1951. However in 1954 a second inter-party Government was formed. On this occasion Liam Cosgrave was given a cabinet position. As Minister for External Affairs Cosgrave took part in trade discussions and chaired the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1955. He also successfully presided over Ireland's admittance to the United Nations, defining Irish foreign policy for decades in his first address to the General Assembly in 1956. These were important achievements for an Ireland of the time that was just finding its feet on the world stage after years of isolation after World War II.


With Fine Gael back in opposition during the 1960s, an internal struggle for the soul of the party was beginning. A large body of members called on Fine Gael to move decisively towards social democracy. A set of eight principles known as the Just Society was put forward to the party leadership by Declan Costello, the son of John A Costello, the former Taoiseach. The principles called for higher state spending in Health and Social Welfare on top of a greater state role in the economy. Despite his conservative credentials, Cosgrave adopted a somewhat positive attitude to the Just Society document. Nevertheless, Fianna Fail went on to win the 1965 General Election and Fine Gael remained in opposition.

Fine Gael Leader

In 1965, when James Dillon retired as Fine Gael leader after the 1965 general election loss, Liam Cosgrave, as a senior party figure and son of the first parliamentary leader of Fine Gael, easily won the leadership. Throughout his leadership, Cosgrave was seen as dour and conservative but utterly trustworthy and honourable.[citation needed] He led his party to defeat in the 1969 election and was under constant threat and challenge by younger more social democratic elements represented by Garret FitzGerald who was elected to the 1969 Dail. Cosgrave's erstwhile opponent, Declan Costello, had retired in 1969. Cosgrave's fortunes changed in 1970. He played a key role in the Arms Crisis, when, as leader of the opposition, he pressured then Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, to take action against senior ministers who were involved in importing arms intended for the Provisional IRA.[citation needed]

Cosgrave's determination to support government anti-terrorist legislation in votes in the Dáil, in the face of outright opposition from his party, almost cost him his leadership. The growing liberal wing in Fine Gael was opposing the Government's stringent laws on civil liberty grounds. Cosgrave put the security of the State and its institutions first. At the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in May 1972, Cosgrave faced down his political opponents in spectacular style. 1972 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the state and so was an important milestone in the history of Fine Gael. However, the FF government ignored the anniversary while liberals in Fine Gael were plotting to remove Cosgrave as leader. In a speech littered with references to Fine Gael's founding fathers, he contrasted the difficulties posed by the IRA in Northern Ireland with those faced by the first Free State government in dealing with the anti-treatyites. Departing from his script Cosgrave rounded on his leadership rivals. Asking delegates if they did any hunting Cosgrave declared that "... 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". A year later, Cosgrave was leading Fine Gael back into power. Cosgrave supported the Government's Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill in November, 1972, despite the position taken by Fine Gael to oppose the Bill. When bombs were set off in Dublin on the night of the vote, Cosgrave's position was suddenly vindicated and his position secured.


In February 1973, Lynch suddenly called a general election for the end of that month. He had hoped to capitalise on the disarray of the Opposition before Christmas and lead Fianna Fáil to an historic victory. To the surprise of many observers, Fine Gael and the Labour Party quickly announced a joint platform based on Fourteen Policy points that proved popular on the doorsteps, especially the proposal to take health charges off domestic rates. Pre-election manifestos were a new development in Irish politics at this stage. Fianna Fáil changed tack during the campaign and promised to abolish domestic rates completely. It did not save Lynch's government which was defeated on transfers between the opposition parties. Cosgrave led a National Coalition of Fine Gael and the Labour Party to victory in the 1973 general election. Ironically, the National Coalition parties received fewer votes than when they ran separately in 1969, but won because of tighter transfers to each other. It was the first non-Fianna Fáil government since the Second Inter-Party Government was elected in 1954. Cosgrave was determined not to alienate certain wings of his party in choosing his cabinet. The cabinet was described as being the "government of all talents", including such luminaries as future Taoiseach and writer Garret FitzGerald, former United Nations diplomat, Conor Cruise O'Brien, television presenter and veterinary professor Justin Keating and others. Cosgrave balanced these with hardline Christian Democrats such as Richard Burke, a former teacher, Cork merchant prince Peter Barry and west Dublin farmer, Mark Clinton. As Minister for External Affairs in the 1950s, at the United Nations, Cosgrave, seated between the Iraqi and Israeli delegations, famously appealed to the Israelis and Palestinians (predominantly Jews and Muslims) "to settle their differences in accordance with Christian principles".[citation needed]

The National Coalition had a string of bad luck. It started with the world energy crisis triggered by the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, which caused inflationary problems. It suffered its first electoral defeat, when its odds-on favourite in the 1973 presidential election, Tom O'Higgins, was unexpectedly defeated by the Fianna Fáil candidate, Erskine H. Childers, who became President of Ireland.

In December 1973, the Supreme Court declared the ban on the importation of contraceptives by married persons to be unconstitutional. Patrick Cooney, the Minister for Justice, introduced legislation in 1974 to regulate and allow for married couples to obtain contraceptives. Fianna Fail opposed any liberalisation of the law on family planning and fought the measure in the Dail on grounds of protection of public morality and health. In line with his conservative credentials, and on a free vote, Cosgrave, although Taoiseach and without warning, crossed the floor to help defeat his own Government's bill in the summer of 1974.

The presidency dogged the National Coalition. President Childers died suddenly in November 1974. The agreed replacement, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, though a former Attorney General of Ireland (1946–48; 1951–53) and Chief Justice (1963–1973), was monumentally politically inexperienced and it showed. He needed guidance from the politically experienced Cosgrave. Unfortunately Cosgrave was someone who did not express his feelings openly (he only informed his wife, Vera, that he planned to resign on the morning he submitted it).[citation needed] Previously, presidents had been briefed by taoisigh. While the frequency under the previous Taoiseach had declined as President de Valera's health declined in old age, Liam Cosgrave briefed Presidents Childers and Ó Dálaigh on average once every six months.[citation needed]

Ó Dálaigh's decision in 1976 to exercise his power to refer a bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality brought him into conflict with the Fine Gael-Labour National Coalition. Following the assassination of the British Ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on 23 July 1976 the government announced its intention to declare a state of emergency. Ó Dálaigh referred the resulting bill, the Emergency Powers Bill, to the Supreme Court. When the court ruled that the bill was constitutional he signed the bill into law on 16 October 1976. The same day an IRA action in Mountmellick resulted in the death of a member of the police force, the Garda Síochána. Ó Dálaigh's actions were seen by government ministers to have contributed to the killing of Garda Michael Clerkin. The following day Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan, on a visit to a barracks in Mullingar to open a canteen, attacked the President for sending the bill to the Supreme court, calling him a "thundering disgrace". Ó Dálaigh's private papers show that he considered the relationship between the President (as Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces) and the Minister for Defence had been "irrevocably broken" by the comments of the Minister in front of the army Chief of Staff and other high ranking officers. Donegan offered his resignation but Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave refused to accept it. This proved the last straw for Ó Dálaigh, who believed that Cosgrave had additionally failed to meet his constitutional obligation to regularly brief the President. Ó Dálaigh resigned on 22 October 1976, "to protect the dignity and independence of the presidency as an institution".

It has been argued that Cosgrave fell into the category of being a "chairman" rather than a "chief" as far as the day to day running of his Government was concerned. He was meticulous in adhering to the implementation of the Fourteen Point Plan on which the National Coalition was elected. Many of his cabinet ministers were greater stars in their own right than he was. To the surprise of many, he appointed Richie Ryan rather than Garret FitzGerald as his Minister for Finance when the Labour Party leader, Brendan Corish, declined the position in 1973. Ryan, a Dublin solicitor, was of typically conservative Fine Gael stock. Nevertheless Ryan (dubbed "Red Richie" by Fianna Fáil) implemented the Coalition's plans to replace death duties with a range of capital taxes, including Capital Gains Tax and Wealth Tax. Fianna Fáil bitterly opposed these new capital taxes and garnered considerable support from the wealthy and propertied classes as a result that would stand them in good stead in future elections.

Other achievements for the National Coalition were the building of 25,000 houses each year; considerable expansion of the social welfare system; the abolition of the necessity to pass an examination in Irish in order to qualify for a Leaving Certificate on completion of secondary school; some fourteen pieces of employment protection legislation; and a star performance by Garret FitzGerald as Foreign Minister, both on the European stage and in the Anglo Irish arena.

Cosgrave's Government invested huge energy in the quest for peace in Northern Ireland and he signed the Sunningdale Agreement that appeared to provide a solution to the Northern Irish problem in December, 1973. A powersharing executive was set up and a Council of Ireland was to be established but it all came crashing down in May 1974 as a consequence of the Ulster Workers' Council Strike.

The Cosgrave government's tough anti-terrorist laws alienated the public[citation needed], as did its tough austerity measures (Finance Minister Richie Ryan was nicknamed 'Richie Ruin' on a satirical TV programme). Marginal income tax rates came to 77% one year during the Coalition's reign. The electorate had not experienced unemployment and hardship of this nature since the fifties and the Government became quite unpopular. Combined with the Donegan affair and the hard line approach to law and order, the economic difficulties were quite damaging to Cosgrave and Corish's popularity. In May 1977, Cosgrave addressed a euphoric Fine Gael Ard Fheis on the eve of the general election. He made a strong attack on "blow-ins" who could "blow out". This was taken to be an attack on Bruce Arnold, the English born political writer in the Irish Independent newspaper who had been vociferously opposed to Cosgrave's policies particularly regarding the President and the wealth tax. While the Fine Gael grassroots loved it, the public were appalled.[citation needed] Cosgrave, together with James Tully, the Labour Minister for Local Government had redrawn the constituency boundaries to favour Fine Gael and Labour for the first time (the "Tullymander") and they confidently expected the new boundaries would win for them. Dublin, apart from Dun Laoghaire, was divided into some 13 three seat constituencies where Fine Gael and Labour were to take one seat each reducing Fianna Fáil to a minority rump in the capital. The election campaign started without Cosgrave taking any opinion polls in advance. If he had he would have known that Fianna Fáil were well ahead. At the time, the media did not take opinion polls as they exist today. During the campaign, the National Coalition made up some ground but the Fianna Fáil manifesto of give away promises (no rates, no car tax, and so forth) was far too attractive for the electorate and the National Coalition was heavily defeated, with Fianna Fáil winning an unprecedented massive parliamentary majority. Fianna Fáil won unexpected second seats in many Dublin constituencies, in particular. Its infamous giveaway manifesto would plunge the State into economic crisis during the late 1970s and much of the 1980s. The irony was that Fianna Fáil are likely to have won without the promises it had given.[citation needed] In the immediate aftermath, Liam Cosgrave resigned as Fine Gael leader. He was replaced by his former Foreign Minister, Garret FitzGerald. Cosgrave retired at the 1981 general election. Cosgrave can be accused of calling the 1977 election prematurely, as the Irish economy was recovering rapidly in early 1977 and a later election in the autumn or winter of that year may have been more propitious for the National Coalition.

In 1981, Cosgrave retired as Dail Deputy for Dun Laoghaire to be replaced by his son, Liam junior. He has effectively withdrawn from public life for a third of a century and is almost unknown to younger Irish people, emerging from time to time to attend funerals of his former colleagues.


Between them, the two Cosgraves, W. T. and Liam, served in Dáil Éireann from 1918 to 1981. Both men headed governments; Leadership of the Irish Free State fell onto W. T's shoulders after the assassination of Michael Collins. Liam's son Liam T. Cosgrave was also an Irish politician who was accused before the Mahon Tribunal of accepting illegal payments from property developers in return for voting to rezone property in Dublin: he resigned from the Fine Gael party when this became known and pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was disqualified from continuing in his legal practice, thereby effectively ending his political career and the Cosgrave political dynasty.

As of 2010, Cosgrave is both the oldest and earliest living former Taoiseach. At 89 years, he is the second longest lived Taoiseach, behind only Éamon de Valera. Moreover, he is the earliest surviving TD, having first been elected to the 11th Dáil in 1943, and the earliest surviving cabinet minister, having served in John A. Costello's second government as Minister for External Affairs from 1954 to 1957. He continues to live in Rathfarnham beside the former residence of his father, W T Cosgrave, surrounded by suburbs that have grown up over his lifetime.


The following government was led by Cosgrave:


See also

External links

Preceded by
Patrick Belton, Snr
(Fine Gael)
Fine Gael Teachta Dála for Dublin County
Succeeded by
Moved to new constituency
Preceded by
New constituency
Fine Gael Teachta Dála for Dún Laoghaire and Rathdown
Succeeded by
Constituency abolished
Preceded by
New constituency
Fine Gael Teachta Dála for Dún Laoghaire
Succeeded by
Liam T. Cosgrave
(Fine Gael)
Political offices
Preceded by
Eamonn Kissane
Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach
(Government Chief Whip)

Succeeded by
Donnchadh Ó Briain
New office Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry and Commerce
Office abolished
Preceded by
Frank Aiken
Minister for External Affairs
Succeeded by
Frank Aiken
Preceded by
Jack Lynch
Succeeded by
Jack Lynch
Party political offices
Preceded by
James Dillon
Leader of the Fine Gael Party
Succeeded by
Garret FitzGerald
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Jack Lynch
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Paddy Smith
Father of the Dáil
Succeeded by
Oliver J. Flanagan

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