Liam Cosgrave with Brendan Halligan and IIEA staff.
The death of former Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, at the age of 97, has led to many tributes from across politics and from academic commentators. Many warm comments have come from those who had the opportunity of working with him, especially in the National Coalition government of 1973-1977.
Liam Cosgrave was an internationalist. As Minister for External Affairs in the mid-1950s he led Ireland into the United Nations General Assembly. He argued for Irish membership of the European Economic Community, leading the Fine Gael campaign in the 1972 referendum and joined the select grouping of EEC government leaders on becoming Taoiseach just months after our accession in January 1973.
As Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave showed great interest in the evolving EEC dimension of government. With Frank Cluskey, I was deeply involved in the negotiation of the first EEC Social Action Programme, under the leadership of Ireland’s first Commissioner, Dr Patrick Hillery. Frank spoke often of the Taoiseach’s interest in that pioneering project, and in its implications for advancing the social and labour market policies of the government.
The First European Council
Liam Cosgrave presided over the first meeting of the Heads of Government of the European Economic Community in its new designation as the European Council. He saw this as a unique opportunity for this country to demonstrate its commitment to the success of the new institution, designed to provide direction and leadership to the recently enlarged Community. Reports of that occasion refer to extraordinary efforts by the Office of Public Works to ensure that Dublin would prove to be a memorable location for a meeting which would attract major media attention. St Patrick’s Hall provided a remarkable setting for the plenary meeting while a number of rooms, such as George’s Hall, were renovated and a Press Room was fitted out and equipped for international telecommunications, thanks to the direct intervention of the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Conor Cruise O’Brien.
Meeting in Dublin Castle on 10-11 March 1975, the Council meeting was notable for its consideration of issues related to the UK’s membership. Having characteristically requested permission “to take a little of the time of the House to give a brief outline to Members of what transpired over the last two days” the Taoiseach reported that “a matter of great importance discussed at the meeting was the criteria by which the situation of a country could be examined to see if its membership of the Community was leading to unacceptable conditions, and how this situation might be corrected. This is a major issue of concern to the United Kingdom at present.”
He then outlined the main lines of the Council’s efforts to deal with urgent British concerns over the level of financial contribution and provision for the importation of quantities of New Zealand dairy products to the Community. Agreement was reached on the budgetary issue with the adoption of a Commission paper – “The Unacceptable Situation and the Correcting Mechanism”- and a decision that the mechanism should be applied immediately. The Council also agreed new guidelines for trade with New Zealand.
Despite the fact that it had been agreed that there should be no formal communique after meetings of the European Council, the Taoiseach reported that “a number of issues before the meeting were of such importance and such complexity that it was found necessary to incorporate the decisions in formal declarations or statements.” He concluded that he “was glad to have had the opportunity to preside over this Heads of Government meeting which, in addition to dealing successfully with other items, brought to a conclusion the prolonged discussion of the issues raised by the question of British membership.”
The First UK Referendum
The Dublin Castle discussion was critical because of the political situation in the UK where the Labour Party government, led by Harold Wilson, had decided to seek a clear resolution of on-going controversy and internal party dispute over the country’s involvement in the EEC by holding a referendum on continued membership of the Community. The Dublin Castle agreements on finance and New Zealand butter were immediately considered by the London Cabinet and endorsed by sixteen votes to seven, with the opponents including such political ‘stars’ as Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle. This provided Wilson with a key element in his campaign for a positive vote. Three months later the referendum produced a clear result in favour of membership – by 67% to 33% with a turnout of 64.5%.
Liam Cosgrave and the IIEA
When the Institute of European Affairs was established the Head of the European Commission Representation in Dublin, and future Director General of the then Institute of European Affairs, Terry Stewart, proposed setting up a Comite d’Honneur – a group of prominent people who give their blessing to, and support the work and activities of the organisation. It was agreed that this should be done, and that those invited should include former Presidents of Ireland, present and past Taoisigh and Irish members of the European Commission and the Irish President of the European Parliament.
The initial membership of the Comite d’Honneur included Patrick Hillery, Albert Reynolds, Garret FitzGerald, Charles Haughey and Jack Lynch. Brendan Halligan, as Chairman of the Institute, approached Liam Cosgrave to extend a formal invitation to join the Comite d’Honneur. which he declined as he had decided not to accept such honours following his retirement. Nonetheless, he demonstrated support for the Institute by attending a number of events in its early, formative period.
I was privileged to work within 1973-1977 National Coalition government, as Special Advisor to the Tánaiste, Brendan Corish, and the de facto Minister for Social Welfare, Frank Cluskey. Special Advisors were new, somewhat controversial, arrivals on the political scene in 1973, and initially almost entirely on the Labour Party side of the government, but Liam Cosgrave not only accepted our arrival but encouraged our endeavours and made us feel fully part of the team. This personal recognition was remarkable insofar as it continued long after the end of that administration. At the funeral of Conor Cruise O’Brien he went out of his way to speak to a number of Labour Party people who had played a part in the 1970s. As he shook my hand he said “You worked with Brendan Corish – such a good man.”
By IIEA Senior Fellow Tony Brown.