Thursday 19 September 2019

Cosgrave cast a constant cold eye on the IRA enemy

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Liam Cosgrave's political credo, like his father's, was salus populi suprema lex: the safety of the people is the supreme law. In practice this meant protecting the State from the IRA, and he was never slow to use its initials.

So why the pussyfooting around the term "IRA" by both Leo Varadkar in his Dail tribute, and David McCullagh in his Prime Time profile?

Neither Varadkar nor McCullagh specified the Provisional IRA, or IRA, by name, preferring euphemisms about security.

This missed out on the need to educate a new generation to name and shame the IRA and its political defenders.

Liam Cosgrave had no inhibitions about naming the IRA, not least because it had shadowed his entire life.

In 1923, Liam was a child when an IRA gang burnt his family home - he never forgot the smell of burning wood.

In 1970, he thwarted a plan to arm the Provisional IRA by alerting the Taoiseach Jack Lynch.

In 1972, he was ready to defy the majority of his party and vote for Des O'Malley's anti-IRA measures even if it cost him the leadership.

Above all, in March 1974, he and his government were indelibly marked by the IRA's sectarian murder of Senator Billy Fox.

Fox, a popular young Protestant nationalist and rising Fine Gael politician in Monaghan, was making one of his regular Monday night visits to his girlfriend, Marjorie Coulson, at her parents' family farm.

A 13-man IRA gang had earlier invaded the house, terrorised her family and in a black fit of bigotry thrown the family bible in the fire.

As Fox arrived, the IRA gang shot him dead and then burned the farmhouse.

John Bruton recalls gazing down at Fox's body in his open coffin and resolving to resist ambivalence about the IRA.

The pundits who were so sniffy last week about the tough methods of the alleged Garda "heavy gang" lack historical empathy with the horror evoked by the Fox murder.

That's because Senator Fox was the only member of the Oireachtas to be murdered by the IRA since the killing of Kevin O'Higgins in 1927.

As leader of Fine Gael, Varadkar should have recalled its traumatic effect on the Cosgrave government of 1973-77, saluted Fox's memory, and excoriated the IRA gang.

These hard touch reminders are needed to alert a new generation about the IRA campaign which Gerry Adams still defends.

In his grudging Dail response, Adams could not even pronounce the name Cosgrave properly - it came out as "Cosgrove".

But Leo Varadkar, in his Dail tribute, twice avoided the specific term 'Provisional IRA' in favour of the catch-all term "terrorism".

"Consistently opposed to all violence, Liam Cosgrave was a courageous voice against terrorism, and protected the State in times of crisis. He looked terrorism in the eye and did not flinch."

Contrast this with Micheal Martin's specific naming of names:

"As Taoiseach, his government faced the rising impact of the illegitimate campaigns of the Provisional IRA and loyalists."

Brendan Howlin, too, did not settle for blurry pieties about Cosgrave's defence of state institutions.

"Lest we forget, those institutions were under direct and violent attack from the IRA of that time."

David McCullagh's Prime Time profile of Cosgrave echoed Varadkar's vagueness. No mention of the murder of Fox and, more strikingly, no mention of the Provisional IRA.

This omission was all the more striking because Cosgrave made one of his most pungent attacks on the IRA when launching McCullagh's biography of John A Costello in 2010.

"Costello disliked emergency legislation. He was for the ordinary courts. Some of us were more disposed, I think, to the military court, because it was effective, and in a lot of respects reminded me of the mo direach."

The Taoiseach's failure to focus on the IRA came a day after some jolly Dail exchanges between Varadkar and Adams.

In bouts of what I call belly-rubbing, Varadkar and Adams exchanged nods and becks and wreathed smiles.

Brendan Howlin, who refused to join the fake jollity, reached some interesting conclusions about the belly-rubbing as reported by John Downing in last Wednesday's Irish Independent.

Covering Labour's launch of its alternative budget, Downing reported on Howlin's views about the shape of the next coalition.

Asked about future coalitions, Howlin insisted "you could not rule out any party doing business with any other party".

Howlin went on to say that recent surveys suggested a Fine Gael-Sinn Fein coalition was more likely than Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein.

He finished with this flat statement: "I've heard Micheal Martin rule it out with more conviction that Leo Varadkar has."

This puts an even sharper point on my question. Why the Taoiseach and RTE's baffling reluctance to recall that Cosgrave never took his cold eye from the IRA?

Could it have come from the culture of "let's move on", a misplaced desire not to drag up stuff that might cast a shadow on the "peace process"?

But the Taoiseach and McCullagh were not the only ones who failed to follow up on Cosgrave's life-long focus on the IRA.

Many of the tributes to Cosgrave told you more about the pontificating pundits than they did about Cosgrave.

Some shamelessly ransacked Stephen Collins's book, The Cosgrave Legacy, without attribution, for their recycled false memories, yet still passed over the Provos.

Rather than recycle another anecdote from Stephen Collins's looted goldmine, I will offer only a few modest observations.

First, many pundits who didn't cog from Collins, borrowed their stories from Conor Cruise O'Brien's memoirs.

But they failed to mention the deep admiration The Cruiser developed for Cosgrave.

The Cruiser came into politics with the leftie line that Cosgrave was just a reactionary conservative.

But he had the moral courage to change his mind, and accept that Cosgrave was the right man to respond to the terrorist campaign waged by those The Cruiser called "the Seven Samurai of the Army Council".

To my shame it took me another year before I followed The Cruiser into the camp of Cosgrave fans where I have stayed since.

Along the way, as a small tribute to Cosgrave, I stopped using the term "conservative" as an abusive adjective.

Second, I much enjoyed Micheal Martin and Eamon Ryan's riff on Cosgrave's increasingly endangered Dublin accent.

As Martin remarked: "It is hard not to be struck by how his was a distinct accent, one which is now quite rare."

During my time in RTE, I tried to master that abrasive accent so as to impress the Hall's Pictorial team down the corridor.

Like Sean Lemass's voice, Cosgrave's gritty cadences, evoking the sea withdrawing slowly over a pebbled shore, was the sound of integrity.

Sunday Independent

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