Sunday 15 December 2019

Cosgrave brings to life the ghosts of old politics

The former Taoiseach is a precious link to the chaotic first years of the State and reminds us of the challenges the government faced, writes John-Paul McCarthy

LIAM Cosgrave gave a remarkable speech last week at the launching of a new biography of former Taoiseach J A Costello at the Mansion House.

Lord Tennyson once warned that old ghosts only emerge "to trouble joy", but sometimes old Irish political ghosts aspire to more than a wander around the ramparts of memory lane.

For a man of his advanced years, Cosgrave looked almost radiant at the podium, delivering most of his wide-ranging speech without glancing down at his text. He did his best to make people take Costello seriously as a Taoiseach, a rather hard sell at the best of times considering the fact that all of his major decisions were composites, as befitted a chief executive who had five hungry party mouths to feed while in office.

Just as Henry Adams said in his memoir of 19th Century American life, so Cosgrave might also have said that his education had been chiefly inheritance.

Born to the political purple so to speak, Cosgrave is a rather precious link to the chaotic first years of the Irish State. At a time when the academic pendulum is swinging somewhat back to a place where the quality of the anti-Treaty arguments are being re-assessed, Cosgrave performed a vital service by reminding his audience that de Valera was still keeping some very unsavoury company as late as 1931.

Bill Kissane and other scholars have written in recent years to ask whether Cosgrave's father and Kevin O'Higgins overreacted in 1922 by shelling the occupied Four Courts and inaugurating a formal civil war.

Liam Cosgrave's remorseless summary of both the IRA's activities in the late Twenties and de Valera's excruciating defence of some of these same activities even from within the Dail chamber help to give us an unusually intimate sense of the existential challenges our first government faced.

There is a good book to be written on the various ways successive governments tried to defend the legitimacy of the State at the analytical and rhetorical level. Doubts and evasions of all sorts riddled even the Free State arguments from time to time.

Having slogged through some of the papers relating to the Inter-Party Government a few years ago, I remember being very irritated by Costello's handwriting and his penchant for writing erratically in green ink.

The irritation lifted when I found the drafts of his major radio speech denouncing the IRA border campaign in the mid-Fifties, as written for him by cabinet secretary Maurice Moynihan. I expected a fairly short, clinical speech denouncing the IRA as a treasonous organisation acting in defiance of the spirit and letter of Bunreacht na hEireann and sundry emergency powers statutes. Instead I spent a couple of hours reading through Moynihan's voluminous drafts, each one of which tried gallantly to criticise the IRA's crimes while attempting to assert the government's legitimate grievances vis-a-vis Northern Ireland and Britain via Articles 2 and 3.

Moynihan was desperately groping here for a form of words that the Taoiseach could use in his attempt to denounce the IRA in practice, while obscuring questions about the legitimacy of their principled aspiration as derived from the State's own rhetoric.

Having listed the draft's various attempts to reconcile the spirit of Article 2 with the letter of the Offences Against the State Act, I closed the file and scribbled a line from the poet Robert Conquest in my notebook; "we die of words".

The analytical tensions that afflicted de Valera on his long march away from the rivers-of-blood rhetoric of 1922 towards parliamentary government seemed to plague a Fine Gael Taoiseach just as badly.

Liam Cosgrave reminded us acidly, though, at the end of the speech why this might have been particularly so in Costello's case. He shared the bridge on the ship of state with Sean MacBride of course, the former IRA chief-of-staff who served as a flamboyant minister for external affairs between 1948-51, and whom Cosgrave compared to a dam [female horse] at the end of his speech.

Unkind commentators may argue that Cosgrave has no right to criticise MacBride because he proved to be just as conservative as he was when he served as Taoiseach in the national coalition between 1973-77. MacBride fired Noel Browne for antagonising the doctors and the bishops during the Mother and Child shambles, and Cosgrave notoriously voted against his own government's contraception bill in the late-Seventies.

Tallyrand once said that treason was a matter of dates, and this insight may also apply as regards reputations.

Unlike MacBride, Cosgrave never pretended to be a social radical, and he never used any of the rhetoric of modernisation that MacBride was addicted to during his brief ministerial career.

Though Cosgrave's opposition to the liberalisation of the contraception laws may appear archaic in the extreme from this vantage point, when compared with MacBride's craven defence to the Catholic bishops in the Fifties, the great unmentionable when he came to collect his later Lenin Prize, Cosgrave's sabotage act looks like a dignified act of personal conscience.

Cosgrave praised the military courts established during the Emergency for being what he briskly called "an modh direach", ie. the bluntest method available for dealing with an IRA that had made common cause with Nazi Germany.

That phrase will do nicely as a summary of his own career; honest, direct and fiercely patriotic.

Here's hoping that his Mansion House speech marks a new beginning for the public life of Mr Cosgrave.

John-Paul McCarthy recently completed a doctorate in Irish history at the University of Oxford.

Sunday Independent

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