Liam Cosgrave served as fifth Taoiseach or prime minister of the Republic of Ireland between 1973 and 1977. The son of W.T. Cosgrave (who served as the first President of the Executive Council (prime minister) from 1922-1932), Liam Cosgrave entered Irish politics, becoming a TD in Dáil Éireann in 1944, when his father retired. He served as Minister for External Affairs in the Second Inter-Party Government (1954-1957) under then Taoiseach, John A. Costello. During his term as Minister, the Republic of Ireland joined the United Nations.
In 1965, when James Dillon retired as Fine Gael leader, Liam Cosgrave, as a senior party figure and son of the first parliamentary leader of Fine Gael, easily won the leadership. Throughout his leadership, Cosgrave was seen as dour, conservative but utterly trustworthy and honourable. He played a key role in the Arms Crisis, when, he informed then Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach, Jack Lynch, of allegations that senior ministers were involved in trying to import arms for the Provisional IRA.
Cosgrave's determination to support government anti-territorist legislation in votes in the Dáil in the face of outright opposition from his party, almost cost him his leadership. However a series of Dublin bombings, which were heard in Leinster House, the home of Ireland's parliament just before the vote, led Fine Gael to change its viewpoint and vote for the Bill. Cosgrave's leadership was saved. Within months, he had become taoiseach.
Cosgrave led a National Coalition of Fine Gael and Labour to victory in the 1973 general election. It was the first non-Fianna Fáil elected, since the Second Inter-Party Government was elected in 1954. The cabinet was described as being the 'government of all talents', including such liminaries as future taoiseach and writer Garret FitzGerald, former United Nations diplomat, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Justin Keating and others.
In retrospective, the National Coalition is judged to have to have been one of the best in Irish history. It had however a string of bad luck. It started with the world energy crisis, with caused inflationary problems. It suffered the its first electoral defeat, when its odds on favourite in the June 1973 presidential election, Tom OHiggins, was defeated by the Fianna Fáil candidate, Erskine Hamilton Childers, who became President of Ireland.
The presidency dogged the National Coalition. President Childers died suddenly in November 1974. The agreed replacement, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, though a brilliant former Irish Attorney-General (1946-48; 1951-53) and Chief Justice (1963-73), was monumentally politically inexperienced and it showed. He needed guidance from the politically experienced Liam Cosgrave. Unfortunately Liam was someone who did not express his feelings openly (he only informed his wife that he planned to resign on the morning he submitted it!). Previously, presidents had been briefed by taoisigh. While the frequency under the previous Taoiseach had declined as President de Valera's health declined in old age, Liam Cosgrave briefed Presidents Childers and Ó Dálaigh on average once every six months.
Left unguided, the inexperienced Ó Dálaigh's relationship with the National Coalition deteriorated. When, in the aftermath of the assassination of the British Ambassador to Ireland, Sir Christopher Ewart Biggs, the President correctly referred a number of key anti-terrorist Bills to the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality, Patrick Donegan, an outspoken minister with a reputation for saying the wrong thing, lashed the President as a 'thundering disgrace' in a speech to senior army officers.
Donegan, an honourable man, twice offered his resignation, as well as sending a fullsome apology to the President. However, in the biggest misjudgment of his career, Cosgrave twice refused the resignation. The President, not so much angered by the outburst as the further comment, that the 'army must stand behind the state', which the President interpreted as being a suggestion that he, the Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Army, didn't stand behind the state, an astonishing claim to make in front of Irish army officers who had been commissioned by the President of Ireland. Ó Dálaigh resigned the presidency. He was replaced by the Fianna Fáil candidate, Patrick Hillery. The whole affair, and the National Coalition's treatment of an honourable if politically niaive man, severely damaged the government's reputation.
Its tough anti-terrorist laws alienated the public, (in defence of the government it must be stated that the 1970 Arms trial involving among others, Fianna Fail minister Charles J. Haughy later to be Taoiseach, might have created the suspicion that sections of the Civil and Public Services could have been compromised by these events) as well as its tough austerity measures (Finance Minister Richie Ryan was nicknamed 'Richie Ruin' by Fianna Fail as well as on a satirical TV programme). In 1977, the National Coalition was heavily defeated, with Fianna Fáil winning an unprecedented massive parliamentary majority. In the immediate aftermath, Liam Cosgrave resigned as Fine Gael leader. He was replaced by his former Foreign Minister, Garret FitzGerald. Cosgrave did not contest the 1981 general election.
Between them, the two Cosgraves, W. T. and Liam, served in Dáil Éireann from 1918 to 1981. Both men headed governments; W. T. Cosgrave became President of the Provisional Government following the death of Michael Collins and created the Irish Free State. Both served their country with honour and distinction. Their reputations have increased with age. Both made mistakes, both had failings, but both showed the highest standards of integrity and decency. W. T. Founded the state. Liam devoted his life to serving the state, and in its tough anti-terrorism measures, defended the state from attack by the Provisional IRA, which refused to accept the legitimacy of the Republic of Ireland, thereby endangering its survival.