Liam Cosgrave Obituary: Devout Catholic, conservative and highly principled Taoiseach
Former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave shocked his government colleagues when he voted against them to stop married couples having access to contraceptives.
The man who oversaw Ireland’s entry to the United Nations General Assembly was Catholic, conservative and highly principled.
In a political career spanning almost four decades, Liam Cosgrave was a key part of the Sunningdale agreement which paved the way for the Anglo Irish agreement 11 years later.
He also played a major role in the Arms Crisis when as Fine Gael leader in opposition, he pushed Taoiseach Jack Lynch to take action against two senior ministers for allegedly using a relief fund for nationalists in the north to buy guns for the Provisional IRA.
Lynch was forced to sack his Minister for Finance, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries. Both were subsequently acquitted by the courts of conspiracy to import arms illegally.
Cosgrave termed it “the greatest scandal that has hit this state since we won independence”.
His devout Catholicism and conservative stance were underlined in 1974 when, in a completely surprise move, the then Taoiseach walked across the Dail floor to side with Fianna Fail and stop married couples having access to contraceptives.
Fianna Fail, at the time were opposed to the sale of condoms, contraceptive devices and pills on the grounds of protecting public morality and health.
Mr Cosgrave led six of his party colleagues to vote with the opposition and the Bill was defeated.
His view, he said, was that the Irish people were “opposed to any form of what one calls ‘permissive society’”.
The move underlined the conservative Catholic stance of the Fine Gael leader who had first joined the Dail in 1943 at the age of 23.
Born in Templeogue, Dublin on April 13th 1920 Liam Cosgrave had an inevitable interest in politics from and early age.
His father – William T Cosgrave – was the country’s first ever Taoiseach when he was elected President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State in October 1922.
William T Cosgrave was also a founder member of the Cummann na nGaedheal party which predated the formation of Fine Gael.
Liam Cosgrave spoke at his first political event when he was just 17 years old.
Cosgrave was at educated Synge Street CBS and Castleknock College in Dublin.
He studied law at Kings Inns and was called to the bar in 1943, the same year he was first elected to the Dail.
He sat beside his father on the opposition benches and even at this young age was recognized as one of the most able of the newer TDs.
Five years later he became Fine Gael Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach and Chief Whip when the first inter-party government replaced Fianna Fail which had been in power for the previous 16 years.
The new government – a coalition of Fine Gael, Labour, Clann na Talmhan and Clann na Poblachta – lasted only three years.
When a second inter-party government came to power in 1954 Cosgrave was appointed Minister for External affairs.
In this role he became Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1955 and led the first Irish delegation to the UN General Assembly in 1956.
Cosgrave was elected leader of Fine Gael in 1965, taking over from James Dillon.
Although some saw him as more of a chairman than a leader, Cosgrave made his position clear to his leadership rivals during a Fine Gael Ard Fhéis in 1972.
He described them as “mongrel foxes” who had gone to ground but who he would “dig out” adding “the pack will chop them when they get them”.
He became Taoiseach in 1973 heading the Fine Gael and Labour coalition government which had to steer the country through the world energy crisis.
That government also introduced Capital Gains Tax and Wealth Tax.
Liam Cosgrave was against all forms of violence for political ends and as Taoiseach he met with British Prime Minister Edward Heath to negotiate on the problems in Northern Ireland.
The two men were key participants in the intergovernmental conference at Sunningdale in December 1973 which resulted in Northern Ireland’s first power sharing executive.
Although it was short lived it began the process which led to the Anglo Irish agreement in 1985 and ultimately the current peace process.
It was Cosgrave’s Defence Minister Paddy Donegan who provoked a constitutional crisis in 1976 leading to the first resignation of a president in office.
Mr Donegan called President Cearbhall O Dalaigh as “a thundering disgrace” for referring the Government’s tough new anti-terrorist emergency legislation to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.
Cosgrave issued a government apology but refused to meet the President in person to discuss the issue and refused to sack his Minister. President O Dalaigh resigned.
When the Fine Gael – Labour coalition was defeated in the 1977 election Cosgrave resigned as leader of Fine Gael and he was succeeded by Garret FitzGerald.
Liam Cosgrave continued to hold his Dail seat in Dun Laoghaire until 1981.
His son Liam took over the seat when Cosgrave retired that year.
He continued to made occasional appearance in public life after his retirement. Last year (2016) he unveiled a 1916 commemoration plaque at St James’ Hospital with David Ceannt, the grandnephew of Eamonn Ceannt and Cathal McSwiney Brugha, the grandson of Cathal Brugha.
The hospital campus was the former site of the South Dublin Union was a focal point of the 1916 rebellion. William T Cosgrave served in the battalion stationed there.
Liam Cosgrave donated his father’s papers to the Royal Irish Academy in 2014.
Then 94 years of age, he said he was delighted to donate the historic material.
“They are so careful with such documents that I was determined to hand them over. The Academy will get the best value out of them,” he added.
Vera, his wife of 64 years, predeceased him last September (2016). She was in her 90th year.
The couple had three children, Mary, Liam and Ciarán.