The recent passing of the former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, Liam Cosgrave, had led to much eulogising by the conservative press, elevating an otherwise deeply divisive figure in Irish politics to plaster sainthood. Arguably one of the most reactionary taoisigh in the modern history of the country, the one-time Dún Laoghaire TD followed much the same ideological path as his father and predecessor, WT Cosgrave. During the latter’s reign as the Chairman of the Provisional Government (and later, as the President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State), the elder statesman oversaw some of the worst excesses of the 1922-23 Civil War. These included the executions and assassinations of former revolutionary comrades who remained loyal to the 1916-23 Republic. The breakaway Irish National Army in its contest with the mainstream Irish Republican Army was given a free hand by the inheritors of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, permitting it to act in a manner rivalling that of the British Occupation Forces during the previous several years of independence struggle. Murder and mayhem, torture and incarceration, censorship and authoritarianism, became the chief hallmarks of the proto-nation-state WT Cosgrave and company ushered in with their long counter-revolution. His son’s behaviour was somewhat more tempered when in office, though he too oversaw the torture and false imprisonment of political detainees by the agencies of the state (albeit at one remove and in far less dramatic circumstances than occurred several decades earlier). Similar to his father in the 1920s (and later again in the 1930s), Liam Cosgrave regarded Britain as more of an ally in the affairs of Ireland than a hostile actor, turning a blind eye to the activities – and atrocities – of the British armed forces and intelligence services north and south of the partition border during the early years of the so-called “Troubles”.
Far from representing democratic probity, and an abiding respect for constitutional law and order, the late Fine Gael chief bent and twisted both to his will. A Catholic conservative at a time of embryonic social and cultural liberalism, he embodied the reactionary instincts of the Free State ruling clique, those who still thought in terms of a Twenty-Six Counties’ nation, not a Thirty-Two County one. A partitionist to his bones, the Fine Gael leader’s primary motivation during his term in office was to excise any news of the northern war from the front pages of the southern press. To hammer a lid back on the boiling, explosive pot that was the United Kingdom’s legacy colony on our island. Far from being a person worthy of admiration, the former Taoiseach was simply one in a long line of patrician conservatives reaching back to the parish pump days of John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. The very antithesis of those men and women who sought a modern, equitable and secular republic.
The Irish historian and broadcaster Donal Fallon has some thoughts on Liam Cosgrave over on Spiked:
Cosgrave has been championed for his participation in the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, an attempt to bring about power sharing in Northern Ireland and to create a cross-border Council of Ireland for areas of mutual concern. A sustained campaign of loyalist violence, including the UVF-orchestrated Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974 (the single greatest loss of life on one day in the Irish Troubles, and a day still shrouded in mystery), ultimately brought about the collapse of the agreement. In condemning the UVF’s bombing of Dublin, Cosgrave used his speech in the Dáil to declare that ‘everyone who has practised or preached violence or condoned violence must bear a share of responsibility for today’s outrages’. Morally, it was clear that he and those around him felt that the Provisional IRA bore the blame, the bombing being a reaction to their actions. It was a peculiar logic, but in the Cosgrave administration a rainy day was probably the fault of the IRA, too. His failure to seek a proper enquiry into the events around the Dublin and Monaghan bombings is one part of his legacy.
Beyond his commitment to censorship and the silencing of political opponents, Cosgrave also proved himself an opponent of social progress, famously crossing the floor of the Dáil in 1974 to vote against his own government when the Supreme Court declared the ban on the importation of contraceptives by married persons to be unconstitutional.
Numerous obituaries have proclaimed that Liam Cosgrave was his father’s son, and in many ways he was. Like his father he believed that the state knew what was best for the Irish people, and that freedom of speech and freedom to information was a hindrance to the maintaining of a strong state. Section 31 has thankfully found its place in the dustbin of history, but the desire of successive Irish governments to silence criticism should not be forgotten.