Comment & Analysis

Liam Cosgrave was a noble product of a much-reviled time
Today’s Fine Gael would have no place for its 1970s Taoiseach, writes David Quinn
Former Taoisigh Liam Cosgrave (centre) and Enda Kenny (right).

Liam Cosgrave is the first Taoiseach I can remember. My father, a newspaper man like his father before him and his son now, was thrilled. My father was Fine Gael through and through and Cosgrave’s was the first Fine Gael-led Government in years. He had a right to be thrilled.

I can’t say I remember a whole lot about the period. I can remember the oil crisis and the petrol shortage. I can remember some of the IRA and Loyalist atrocities. I remember the Fianna Fáil landslide of 1977 which brought a shuddering halt to the Cosgrave Government.

In truth, it was a fairly luckless Government. How was it to anticipate the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 which resulted in Arab countries increasing the price of oil fourfold plunging the world into recession? Nothing but hard decisions awaited the Cosgrave Government after that, hard and unpopular decisions. On top of that it had to deal with the Troubles and the threat the IRA posed to the institutions of the State.

I also remember Hall’s Pictorial Weekly and laughing at the figures of ‘Ritchie Ruin’ and the ‘Minister for Hardship’. My father always maintained Hall’s Pictorial Weekly was much harder on Fine Gael Governments than on Fianna Fáil ones.

I remember Cosgrave himself as a fairly dour, colourless figure. I only saw him in action once, at a book launch a few years ago when he showed a very droll sense of humour. People who knew him have spoken about this in the days following his death, and also of his personal kindness.

One thing I do not remember from the time is him voting against his own government on the matter of a contraceptive bill that would have allowed married couples to buy contraceptives. I’ve read and heard plenty about it since, though. The funny thing is, in the obituaries there was little criticism of that action. Instead it was taken as a sign that he was a man of principle and integrity, and also a man of his time.

Important issue

On that occasion, Liam Cosgrave voted with his conscience. He allowed a free vote on the matter and he availed of it. Contrast this with what another Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, did in 2013 when he forbade a free vote on a much more important issue, namely abortion. He imposed the party whip and expelled those who voted against the abortion Bill of that year, which permitted abortion where a woman was deemed to be suicidal.

As a result, Lucinda Creighton, Terence Flanagan, the late Peter Mathews, Billy Timmins, Fidelma Healy Eames and Paul Bradford were expelled from the parliamentary party and their political careers ruined.

What would have happened to Liam Cosgrave if he had still been a Fine Gael TD in 2013? Without a shadow of a doubt he would have voted against that Bill, and the same party that was eulogising him last week would have cast him out without mercy as it did to the six parliamentary members who voted with the consciences four years ago.

This is a measure of how much Fine Gael has changed since the days of Liam Cosgrave. It is not merely that it is a vastly more liberal, secular party, one that has completely abandoned its Christian Democratic roots, it is that it has become an intolerantly liberal party, with less space for real debate than the party of 1973. Fortunately, it is to allow a free vote next year when the wording for the upcoming abortion referendum comes before the Oireachtas.

Liam Cosgrave may have seemed fairly dour and colourless to the general public, but he also seemed solid and honest, a man of his word. He would hardly have known what ‘spin’ was and would have been oblivious to matters of image. The ‘selfie’-obsessed modern politician would have been completely alien to him. He must have been privately appalled in his later years by all those Fine Gael politicians who have changed their ‘convictions’ on issue after issue after being put under a bit of pressure by journalists.

These are politicians without a core. What you see isn’t what you get, and what you see today could be different again tomorrow. They are shape-changers, not leaders, not men and women of conviction. We saw what Fine Gael did to those with real convictions in 2013.

Liam Cosgrave died aged 97. He was two years older than the State he served. He was very much formed by the Ireland of his time. That Ireland was still trying to find its feet in the world, and that Ireland was overwhelmingly Catholic. As we have been reminded over the last week, Liam Cosgrave had a deep Catholic faith. It was this deep Catholic faith that led him to vote against that contraceptive bill.

We have been taught to revile the Ireland that produced Liam Cosgrave. We are constantly reminded of its dark chapters as though those chapters – the Magdalene laundries, the mother and baby homes and so on – are all that is to be said about it.

But if Liam Cosgrave was also a product of that Ireland, is that period to be defined solely by its dark chapters? If Liam Cosgrave was a man of integrity, of principle, a man of his word who wouldn’t know what spin was, doesn’t that say something about that Ireland as well?

And what about your own parents or grandparents? They were also products of that deeply reviled Ireland. Were they all hard, unforgiving and judgemental people? Some of them may have been, but my parents were not, and the grandparents I knew were not either. They were sometimes ‘old-fashioned’ in their attitudes, but they were fine people who ‘stood-at-post’ and who knew the meaning of duty, of service, of commitment, of responsibility.

These things describe Liam Cosgrave as well. He had strong Catholic convictions and he did not go with the tide but stood by what he believed. He reflects well on the society that formed him.