Discreet as he was about politics in later years, the record of the late Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, and the platforms on which he stood, speak volumes for him. Indeed, his personal conduct and the values to which he fiercely held, could well be a template for a modern renaissance of his kind of conviction politics.
News of the death of former Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, brought to mind a childhood trip to Glendalough, and the sight of a stubbornly surviving Fine Gael poster from a long-past election, still clinging to a telegraph pole. My attention was caught – as it was no doubt meant to be – by the earnest, even disapproving expression of the middle-aged man staring down at me. This was, of course, Cosgrave, who had already resigned from the party leadership that he’d held since 1965 in favour of the self-consciously liberalising Garret Fitzgerald.
Looking back, it’s tempting to wonder what this somewhat timeless figure, who soldiered on to the age of 97, made of the changes that succeeded his rule; both in politics and society. We can hardly imagine he would have approved of many of them, but, to his credit, he remained silent on the political disputes of subsequent decades.
Silence, however, does not fall easily over the legacy of any leader as pivotal as Cosgrave. He, and many of his ministers, were attacked while in office for what was seen as their innate conservatism, on both social issues and in relation to the conflict in the North, which he rightly saw as just as much of an existential threat to this state as it was to Northern Ireland.
This allegiance of Cosgrave and his colleagues to the abiding values of the society which had formed them was all the more distinctive, as the Leftist counter-culture of the 1960s had firmly arrived in Ireland by the time the Fine Gael/Labour coalition took power in ’73. As a consequence of this, the counterfeit glamour of revolutionary politics fuelled republican violence and provided a template of action for the social progressives of the day, presenting a major challenge to the conservative status quo.
Fine Gael itself was not immune to the currents coursing through society. Declan Costello, the son of a former Fine Gael Taoiseach, had written the manifesto of rebellion against the party’s conservatism with his ‘Just Society’ paper, now seeing its full fruits in the Left-Liberal leadership of Leo Varadkar. Drawing on this social democratic blueprint, metropolitan liberals such as Garret Fitzgerald were able to create a rival wing in the party to that of Cosgrave and the other traditionalists, which eventually prevailed.
That is the point at which historians usually draw a line under the Cosgrave period, seeing the conservative sentiments of the party as having died a natural death at the time, with the exception of some residual attachments, such as an alignment with the farming community.
Fine Gael’s behaviour since then seems to confirm this assessment, with their enthusiastic embrace of such left-wing policies as same-sex marriage, legal recognition of retrospective gender alteration in official documents, the championing of ethnic minority status for the travelling community, and a clear preference for a secular schools’ regime. Indeed, while they still claim to be a conservative party, it is based on little more than a barely remaining attachment to the free market, which is more correctly described as economic liberalism.
But this is not, perhaps, as cut-and-dried as it seems.
Much of the leftward shift in Fine Gael and, indeed, Fianna Fail, can be blamed on electoral opportunism and the progressive ratchet effect of a series of coalition agreements with much smaller left-wing parties. The constant compromises to agree programmes for government, has had the cumulative effect of making the Marxist analysis the effective default setting for the social policies of so-called ‘right-wing’ parties.
Unfortunate as this is, there is no reason for it to be a permanent condition. The rot has set in because political expediency has replaced the conviction politics that so characterised Liam Cosgrave, perhaps best displayed in his willingness to risk unpopularity and political defeat in order to face down paramilitary subversion at the height of the Troubles.
The prospects for a renewed conservatism in Irish politics are good, if principled and determined leadership can be found. What is essential is a reversal of the leftward drift, and a firm adherence to the post-war, Christian Democratic model which rebuilt Europe and gave her new-found purpose. What that looks like was probably best described by Cosgrave himself, in a June, 1956 speech to the Dáil as Minister for External Affairs.
Setting out his foreign policy, he said Ireland needs “to do whatever we can as a member of the UN to preserve the Christian civilisation of which we are a part, and with that end in view to support whenever possible those powers principally responsible for the defence of the free world in their resistance to the spread of communist power and influence.”
The sympathetic stance towards NATO, the unequivocal acknowledgement of our Christian heritage, and the forthright rejection of a communist or progressivist influence on our society, are exactly the positions that modern Irish politics prefers to be ambivalent about, or bury in relativist verbiage. But conviction leads to clarity, and a people who know where they stand.
This is Cosgrave’s legacy to his country, if somebody with his strength of character can be found to accept it.