Liam Cosgrave

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Liam Cosgrave

The son of the head of the Irish Free State government, Liam Cosgrave (born 1920) became foreign minister and later prime minister (1973-1977).

Liam Cosgrave was born in Dublin on April 30, 1920, the son of William T. and Louise (Flanagan) Cosgrave. He attended the Christian Brothers' School and St. Vincent's College in Dublin. Studying law at the King's Inn, he was called to the bar in 1943 and became a senior counsel in 1958.

Cosgrave's father was the leader of the government of the newly independent Ireland (Irish Free State) from 1922 to 1932. They laid the foundation of Irish democracy in the aftermath of the bloody civil war with the British. William Cosgrave's government had to first wage a civil war against hardline nationalists unhappy with the terms of the independence and then restore constitutional normalcy after years of insurrection and civil war.

In 1932 Eamon De Valera, the leader of the defeated forces in the civil war, but who had in 1926 formed a constitutional opposition party, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), came to power. He would remain as head of the government with two brief exceptions (1948-1951 and 1954-1957) until 1959. Furthermore, his party would remain in power, after he had been elected to the more honorific presidency of Ireland, until 1973. With defeat, the elder Cosgrave's party, Cumann nan Gaedheal (League of Gaels), became absorbed in a new coalition of opposition groups that took the name of Fine Gael (Tribe of Gaels). That party was unable to dent the overwhelming electoral support given to the populist and economic nationalist program of De Valera.

Young Cosgrave entered politics and was elected a Fine Gael deputy to Dáil Eireann, the Irish parliament, in 1943. He served as a parliamentary secretary to the minister for industry and commerce in the 1948 to 1951 coalition government, the first of the brief interruptions of the De Valera and Fianna Fáil ascendancy. More significantly, in the second coalition regime, 1954 to 1957, he was minister of external affairs and accordingly led the first Irish delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations, to which Ireland had been admitted in 1955.

In 1965 he became the leader of the Fine Gael Party. This was a period when both major parties in Ireland were undergoing considerable change. Fianna Fáil, under Taoiseach, or prime minister, Seal Lemass and his successor, Jack Lynch, had turned its back on self-sufficiency and isolationist economic ideals and had opted for increased international trade and foreign investment as the means of Irish economic modernization, culminating in Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community (EEC). Younger members of the Fine Gael Party were trying to shed the party's economic conservative image and present themselves as a "social justice"-minded alternative to the freewheeling capitalistic flavor Fianna Fáil had seemed to assume. Cosgrave, personally more conservative, was able to hold together the more traditional elements in Fine Gael and the "Young Turks."

In February 1973, the month after Ireland's formal entry to the EEC, a national election was won by a coalition of Fine Gael and the smaller Labour Party. The coalition had campaigned on a "14 point program" emphasizing economic and social welfare issues, especially housing and unemployment. Cosgrave became Taoiseach and included in his government Fine Gael figures as conservative as himself and more liberal party members such as Garret FitzGerald, as well as pragmatic but brilliant Labour members such as Conor Cruise O'Brien.

At a conference at Sunningdale, England, December 6 to 9, 1973, the British and Irish governments and political leaders from Northern Ireland established a power-sharing or coalition executive for a devolved Northern Irish government, whereby the minority would have a proportionate number of cabinet positions, and a projected "Council of Ireland" to deal with mutual problems. Fears that the latter portended eventual unification of Ireland created widespread discontent among Northern Irish Unionists, the Protestant majority. British elections in February 1974 ousted the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. His Labourite successor, Harold Wilson, was returned to power but had to govern without an absolute majority and capitulated to a Unionist general strike in Northern Ireland. This had brought the province to a standstill and toppled the power-sharing executive.

The violent spillover of the Northern Irish issue into the Irish Republic, such as the July 23, 1976, assassination of the British ambassador, prompted the Cosgrave government to push strict security measures. Before agreeing to sign the legislation which had been passed, the president of the Irish Republic, Cearbhall O'Dalaigh, exercised his constitutional option of referring the bills to the Supreme Court for advice on their constitutionality. His action provoked the minister for defense, Paddy Donegan, to label the president as "a thundering disgrace." O'Dalaigh interpreted the refusal of Cosgrave to dismiss a cabinet member who had made a partisan attack on the apolitical office of the presidency as grounds for himself to resign, which he did on October 22, 1976. The Cosgrave government sheltered itself from further embarrassment on the matter by not opposing the Fianna Fail nominee, Patrick Millery, as O'Dalaigh's successor. In July 1974 Cosgrave broke ranks with his own party and voted against an unsuccessful bid to liberalize the Irish law on contraceptives.

The coalition government with its promises of socially ameliorative programs came to power at the same time as the world-wide oil crisis, which had particularly severe effects on small nations such as Ireland with minimal natural resources, industry in a developing stage, and great dependence on imports. The efforts of the government to restrain a mainly foreign-induced inflation, to provide social services, to meet governmental expenditures, and to cope with serious unemployment were bound to weaken its political position. In June 1977 Fianna Fáil, running on a supply-side and populist manifesto promising economic recovery, job creation, and lessened taxes, swept the polls with a 20-seat majority and its greatest proportion of the vote in 39 years.

Questions have been raised that Liam Cosgrave was too conscious of his duty to follow in his father's footsteps that he failed to see the need to justify his actions and those of his government. He was a secretive man who never really revealed what motivated him. He used equivocation and ambiguity as a political tool, so much so that even his own party was uncertain as to his positions, such as on the controversial contraception issue. Because of this he called an early general election in 1977, completely misjudging the mood of the country. Had he waited a few more months to allow the country to experience the advantages of the upswing in the economy the election results would have been far different.

Probably the most significant feature of the Cosgrave government was its giving, by the Sunningdale Agreement, implied consent to the principle that Irish unity was dependent on the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland, a position from which succeeding Irish governments have not deviated.

Cosgrave resigned the leadership of the party and was succeeded by Garret FitzGerald. In 1981 he resigned from Dáil Eireann. He returned to public service, as Cathaoirleach of the Seanad (Leader of the Upper House) and served on the Industrial and Commercial Panel.

Further Reading

An excellent study of Irish politics in the era of Cosgrave's prominence is Bruce Arnold, What Kind of Country (1984). Recent and authoritative studies of Irish history to the eve or early stages of the Cosgrave ministry are F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine (1973); John A. Murphy, Ireland in the Twentieth Century (1975); and Ronan Fanning, Independent Ireland (1983). In 1997, Stephen Collins examined The Cosgrave Legacy which focuses attention of Liam Cosgrave's role in government following his father's shining example. □

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Liam Cosgrave (kŏz´grāv), 1920–, Irish statesman; son of William Cosgrave. After studying law, he entered the Dáil Éireann as a Fine Gael member in 1943 and served as minister of commerce and industry (1948–54), minister for external affairs (1954–57), and chairman of the first Irish delegation to the United Nations (1956). He became leader of the party in 1965, and in Mar., 1973, following the general election, he was made prime minister. In the face of continuing deterioration of the political situation in Northern Ireland, Cosgrave supported the British government in its establishment of a coalition executive there and its plans for a Council of Ireland to link the governments of the republic and the North. His defeat in 1977 was attributed to increasing inflation and unemployment.