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Review: The Reluctant Taoiseach: A biography of John A Costello by David McCullagh


John A Costello

John A Costello

John A Costello

FEW figures in Irish life were more esteemed in their lifetime than John A Costello, the mid-20th Century Fine Gael taoiseach. Yet his memory has not worn well outside his own legal profession. One reason for this was the lack of a biography.

For more than 30 years after his death in 1976, the most complete account of his life was an obituary I penned for The Times in London. Now following hard upon Tony Jordan's valuable biography, RTE political correspondent David McCullagh provides a fuller account, drawing on personal papers which the Costello family kept closed until recently.

Costello was unusual among politicians of his generation in not having a national record -- it is possible to see some of his stances as compensation for that. Called to the Bar in 1914, he had devoted himself exclusively to his practice in the years before independence. In 1922, Hugh Kennedy, the first attorney- general, recruited Costello as an assistant. He performed so well that he himself became attorney-general in 1926.

Only in 1933, the year after Fianna Fail came to power, did Costello enter the Dail. He became a Fine Gael front-bencher while also holding down a busy practice.

In the 1948 general election, Fianna Fail lost its majority in the Dail. All the other parties combined to put them out. Costello was the Fine Gaeler most acceptable to these parties as taoiseach. But he was reluctant to abandon his lucrative practice and had doubts about his capacity for the task. In the event, he was persuaded to accept and exceeded expectations, holding together for three and a half years a diverse team chosen by the party leaders without reference to him. The country prospered.

At the 1951 general election, Fianna Fail failed to regain their Dail majority and got back power only with the assistance of independents. The Fine Gael share of the national vote expanded almost by a third. No other Fine Gael taoiseach has ever done so well at the end of a period in office.

However, history has not been kind to Costello, forgetting his general achievement and focusing on the maladroit manner in which he orchestrated Ireland's departure from the Commonwealth in 1949 and his avowed subservience to Episcopal dictation in withdrawing the mother-and-child scheme proposed by minister for health Noel Browne.

On the Commonwealth episode, the author, although critical about Costello's performance, argues that no great harm came of it because we were not treated for trade or immigration purposes as a foreign country by Britain and other Commonwealth countries. This is to disregard the needless alienation of a friendly Labour government in Britain, which reacted with legislation buttressing the Stormont regime.

Despite being heir to the party that had accepted partition in the Twenties, Costello then led an anti-partition campaign. He would have done better to concentrate his rhetoric on discrimination against northern Catholics, on which he could have hoped for support in Britain. Frightened of being branded pro-British, Costello's Fine Gael failed to offer an alternative to the futile verbal anti-partitionism of Eamon de Valera.

The author reinterprets the mother-and-child episode, arguing that far from yielding to Episcopal pressure, Costello was motivated by opposition to socialist medicine and used the bishops to outflank Browne, who was opposed to a means test.

To impute such manipulative behaviour to Costello is unfair. He did not orchestrate the bishops' opposition. Seeing himself as a chairman not a chief, his main concern throughout was to prevent the government from splitting.

Far from trying to outflank Browne, he first tried to get the doctors to accept the scheme without a means test. Then the bishops insisted there should be a means test and the Labour party went back on their opposition to it. It was this that isolated Browne, who marginalised himself further by going ahead with his scheme without consulting Costello.

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Costello returned to power in 1954 on a programme of removing barriers to inward investment, giving tax relief on exports and switching public investment from social to productive purposes. He could not get agreement to such measures until late 1956, after the government had had to impose fierce cutbacks to correct the balance of payments.

Before they could reap the benefits of their virtue, they were bundled out of office, having been deserted by Sean MacBride's Clann na Poblachta party, which took exception to the prosecution of IRA activists attacking the North.

The author blames Costello for not pressing ahead sooner with his programme, but this seems to have been largely the fault of William Norton, the rugged Labour leader, who could not be overridden. As it was, most of Costello's programme was, on the advice of Ken Whitaker, adopted by the incoming Fianna Fail government, which reversed the party's previous protectionist policy and got credit for reviving the economy.

Costello was first and foremost a barrister. He never made any bones about putting his practice and the support of his family above his political career. By concentrating on the political figure, this book skews the reality of Costello's life.

This is not necessarily the author's fault, as he may have been limited by the available materials. But the result does not do justice to the leading barrister of the Thirties, Forties and early Fifties. In recreating Costello's family relationships, McCullagh has had to operate without the assistance of a single letter, apart from one in 1948 to his son Declan, who was recovering from TB in Switzerland.

On Costello's political life, the author may be faulted for relying at times on other books rather than citing original sources and for placing almost exclusive reliance on the Irish Times as the paper of record. But he has done well researching new material, analysing Costello's performance objectively and giving a sympathetic insight into the character of an essentially private man of exceptional humanity who responded honourably to the call of public duty.

Charles Lysaght penned John A Costello's entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography

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