Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Was Liam Cosgrave’s 1973-77 Fine Gael-Labour Coalition the worst-ever Dublin Government?

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On many occasions Gene Kerrigan has argued that the Bertie Ahern coalition elected in 2002 was the worst-ever Dublin Government.

Back in January 2006, this column argued in some detail that the then government, headed by Bertie Ahern, was the worst in the history of the State

Surely the Liam Cosgrave-led 1973-77 Coalition deserves this honour

Liam Cosgrave Shoots to Kill

The record speaks for itself :

Taoiseach 1973-77

Cosgrave was determined not to alienate certain wings of his party in choosing his cabinet. The cabinet was described as being the “Government of all talents“, including such luminaries as future Taoiseach and writer Garret FitzGerald, former United Nations diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien, television presenter and veterinary professor Justin Keating and others. Cosgrave balanced these with hardline Christian Democrats such as Richard Burke, a former teacher, Cork merchant prince Peter Barry and west Dublin farmer Mark Clinton.

It has been argued that Cosgrave fell into the category of being a “chairman” rather than a “chief” as far as the day to day running of his Government was concerned. He was meticulous in adhering to the implementation of the Fourteen Point Plan on which the National Coalition was elected. Many of his cabinet ministers were greater stars in their own right than he was. To the surprise of many, he appointed Richie Ryan rather than Garret FitzGerald as his Minister for Finance when the Labour Party leader, Brendan Corish, declined the position in 1973. Ryan, a Dublin solicitor, was of typically conservative Fine Gael stock. Nevertheless Ryan (dubbed “Red Richie” by Fianna Fáil) implemented the Coalition’s plans to replace death duties with a range of capital taxes, including Capital Gains Tax and Wealth Tax. Fianna Fáil bitterly opposed these new capital taxes and garnered considerable support from the wealthy and propertied classes as a result that would stand them in good stead in future elections.

The National Coalition had a string of bad luck. It started with the world energy crisis triggered by the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, which caused inflationary problems. It suffered an early electoral defeat in the 1973 presidential election, when Fine Gael candidate Tom O’Higgins was defeated by the Fianna Fáil candidate, Erskine H. Childers, who became President of Ireland.


In December 1973, the Supreme Court declared the ban on the importation of contraceptives by married persons to be unconstitutional. Patrick Cooney, the Minister for Justice, introduced legislation in 1974 to regulate and allow for married couples to obtain contraceptives. Fianna Fáil opposed any liberalisation of the law on family planning and fought the measure in the Dáil on grounds of protection of public morality and health. In line with his conservative credentials, and on a free vote, Cosgrave, without warning, crossed the floor to help defeat his own Government’s bill in the summer of 1974.

Clashes with the Presidency

The presidency dogged the National Coalition. Erskine Childers had sought the presidency with promises of making the office more open and hands-on, in particular with plans to create a think tank within Aras an Uachtarain to develop an outline for Ireland’s future. Cosgrave refused to allow it, and frustrated Childers’ plans to break with the restrained precedent of his office.

President Childers died suddenly in November 1974. The agreed replacement was Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, a former Attorney General of Ireland and Chief Justice.[3] O’Dalaigh was a member of Fianna Fáil and had run unsuccessfully for election as a TD. O’Dalaigh was also a noted critic of the curtailment of free speech and was highly critical of the introduction of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which forbade the broadcast of the voices of Sinn Féin members. This put him at odds with Cosgrave, whose government had strengthened the act. Cosgrave, as such, maintained a marked distance from Aras an Uachtarain; whereas previously, presidents had been briefed by taoisigh once a month, Cosgrave briefed Presidents Childers and Ó Dálaigh on average once every six months. In addition, Cosgrave frequently interfered in Ó Dálaigh’s constitutional role as the state’s representative to foreign governments; he was not permitted to receive the Legion of Honour from France, although former president Sean T. O’Kelly had previously received it, and Cosgrave attended the United States‘ bicentennial celebrations in 1976 in Ó Dálaigh’s place.[4]

Ó Dálaigh’s decision in 1976 to exercise his power to refer a bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality brought him into more direct conflict with the National Coalition. The government had introduced the Emergency Powers Bill following the assassination in July of the British Ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, by the IRA; it had passed the Dáil on 21 September. After consultation with the Council of State, Ó Dálaigh referred the bill to the Supreme Court two days later. Although the court ruled that the bill was constitutional, and Ó Dálaigh subsequently signed the bill into law on 16 October, an IRA action on the same day in Mountmellick resulted in the death of a member of Garda Michael Clerkin. Cosgrave’s government, already infuriated, blamed Ó Dálaigh’s delaying enactment of the bill for Clerkin’s murder.[4] On 18 October Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan attacked the President for sending the bill to the Supreme court, calling him a “thundering disgrace”.

Cosgrave called to inform the president of Donegan’s speech, but refused to meet with him in person to discuss the matter owing to his dislike for Ó Dálaigh, fueling the president’s anger; he refused to receive Donegan when he came to personally apologize.[5] When Cosgrave then refused to accept Donegan’s resignation, this proved the last straw for Ó Dálaigh, who resigned on 22 October 1976 “to protect the dignity and independence of the presidency as an institution.”

Northern Ireland

Cosgrave’s Government signed the Sunningdale Agreement that appeared to provide a solution to the Northern Irish problem in December, 1973. A powersharing executive was set up and a Council of Ireland was to be established but it all came crashing down in May 1974 as a consequence of the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike. In addition many Republican voters were angered by what they saw as Cosgrave’s harsh line on the PIRA and the handling of the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings which resulted in the perpetrators walking scot-free. In addition both the Irish Times and the Irish Press, which was then edited by Tim Pat Coogan, were extremely critical of the government’s curtailment of freedom of speech and in particular of the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs Conor Cruise O’Brien which was used against the IRA. Tim Pat Coogan declared what he dubbed “editorial war” on the government after a, now notorious, interview between Bernard Nossiter of the Washington Post and O’Brien in August 1976 regarding the passage of the Emergency Powers Bill. During the course of the interview O’Brien stated that he would’ve liked the bill to be used against teachers who glorified Irish revolutionaries and against newspaper editors who published letters in support of Republicans.[6] Cosgrave was accused of taking an anti-republican or pro-unionist line regarding the north.

Economic measures

The Cosgrave government’s tough anti-terrorist laws alienated the public[citation needed], as did its tough austerity measures (Finance Minister Richie Ryan was nicknamed ‘Richie Ruin’ on a satirical TV programme, Hall’s Pictorial Weekly). Marginal income tax rates came to 77% one year during the Coalition’s reign. The electorate had not experienced unemployment and hardship of this nature since the fifties and the Government became quite unpopular. Combined with the Donegan affair and the hard line approach to law and order, the economic difficulties were quite damaging to Cosgrave and Corish’s popularity.

“Blow-Ins”: 1977 election

In May 1977, Cosgrave addressed a euphoric Fine Gael Ard Fheis on the eve of the general election. He made a strong attack on “blow-ins” who could “blow out or blow up”. This was taken to be an attack on Bruce Arnold, the English born political writer in the Irish Independent newspaper who had been vociferously opposed to Cosgrave’s policies particularly regarding the President and the wealth tax. While the Fine Gael grassroots loved it, the public were appalled.[citation needed]

Cosgrave, together with James Tully, the Labour Minister for Local Government had redrawn the constituency boundaries to favour Fine Gael and Labour for the first time (the “Tullymander“) and they confidently expected the new boundaries would win for them. Dublin, apart from Dun Laoghaire, was divided into some 13 three seat constituencies where Fine Gael and Labour were to take one seat each reducing Fianna Fáil to a minority rump in the capital. The election campaign started without Cosgrave taking any opinion polls in advance – therefore not knowing that Fianna Fáil were well ahead. (At the time, the media did not take opinion polls as they exist today.)

During the campaign, the National Coalition made up some ground but the Fianna Fáil manifesto of give away promises (no rates, no car tax, and so forth) was far too attractive for the electorate and the National Coalition was heavily defeated, with Fianna Fáil winning an unprecedented massive parliamentary majority. Fianna Fáil won unexpected second seats in many Dublin constituencies, in particular.

In the immediate aftermath, Liam Cosgrave resigned as Fine Gael leader. He was replaced by his former Foreign Minister, Garret FitzGerald. Cosgrave retired at the 1981 general election. Cosgrave can be accused of calling the 1977 election prematurely, as the Irish economy was recovering rapidly in early 1977 and a later election in the autumn or winter of that year may have been more propitious for the National Coalition.

Most of the Wikipedia entry is spot-on, but I think the infamous “blow-in” rant was directed at the then head of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Kader Asmal, a South African born refugee who directed the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Mr Cosgrave is entitled to a state funeral when he passes away, but should he get one?

It would surely be better for all concerned if the event was privatised.

Sonny Hundal has proposed the same thing for Mrs Thatcher.

Written by tomasoflatharta

Dec 28, 2011 at 6:17 pm

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