David McCullagh is a journalist and author. A graduate of University College Dublin where he studied history and politics – McCullagh has a PhD in politics – he was RTÉ News Political Correspondent for 12 years before being appointed presenter of Prime Time in 2013. McCullagh has written two books – The Reluctant Taoiseach, a biography of John A. Costello (Gill and MacMillan, 2010) and A Makeshift Majority, a history of the first Inter-Party Government (IPA, 1998) and he recently returned to UCD to record a 6-part podcast series on the life and career of John A. Costello specially for History Hub.
The series will be released episodically over the coming months. Subscribe to our podcast series on iTunes or become a follower of our Soundcloud page to receive new episodes as they are made available.
Episode 3 – Reluctant Taoiseach (Ep 3/6)
Transcript: Reluctant Taoiseach (Ep 3/6)
John A. Costello is unique among Irish heads of government – he was the only one who was genuinely reluctant to take the job. Not only did he not seek the top job in Irish politics, he actively fought against taking it.
Other holders of the office have struggled to attain it; Jack Costello literally had it thrust upon him. The only other politician to hesitate before accepting a chance to take the top job in Irish politics was Jack Lynch of Fianna Fáil in 1966, but that seems to have been out of consideration for his wife rather than his own lack of ambition.
One of the reasons for his reluctance was that he didn’t want to leave his work as a barrister. Not only did he love the law, it was also very lucrative.
But there was another reason, much less well known, revealed in a letter he wrote to his son, Declan, who was then in Switzerland recovering from TB. “I think I can honestly say that it was not the financial loss or even the parting from my life’s work… that made me fight so hard against acceptance, but a fear amounting almost to terror that I would be a flop as Taoiseach and bring discredit on the new administration if it was formed… If I proved unfit it would be disastrous for them all.”
Reluctant, and unsure of whether he was up to the job – you can definitely say Jack Costello wasn’t your typical politician!
So how did he end up as the head of Ireland’s first coalition government?
A former Attorney General, Costello had been a prominent Fine Gael TD since 1933, apart from a brief spell out of the Dáil after he lost his seat in the 1943 election. He was well-liked in Leinster House, where fellow TDs knew of the personal kindness and courtesy that didn’t always come across to the public, more used to his pugnacious speeches.
By the time of the February 1948 general election, his party, Fine Gael, under the leadership of Richard Mulcahy, was in the doldrums. It won its lowest ever share of the vote, just under 20 per cent, although because the number of TDs in the Dáil had increased it won an extra seat, to 31.
The story of the election – in fact, the reason for the election – was the emergence of a new party, Clann na Poblachta, led by Sean MacBride. With a heady mixture of republicanism and radical economics, the Clann looked very like Fianna Fáil before it got into Government. 16 years in power had tired Fianna Fail and dulled its radical edge; the party and its leaders were tired, and the voters seemed disposed to give them a rest.
After Clann na Poblachta won two by-elections in late 1947, Eamon de Valera decided to call an early election in the hope of putting a stop to MacBride’s gallop. The tactic worked – up to a point. MacBride’s party won 10 seats, far less than expected. But Fianna Fáil won just 68 seats, six short of a majority. So a change of government was, at least mathematically, possible, if the other parties could agree a deal.
That would mean bringing conservative, pro-Commonwealth Fine Gael into a coalition with Clann na Poblachta, as well as the small farmer party Clann na Talmhan and the Labour Party, and its offshoot National Labour, which had split from the main party over claims of communist infiltration. For good measure, they would need some Independents as well.
However, Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy thought it was worth a try, and called the other leaders to a meeting to discuss the possibility of a coalition. All the parties except National Labour met on Friday the 13th of February – presumably they weren’t superstitious!
A problem immediately emerged. Labour leader Bill Norton said his party wouldn’t serve under a Taoiseach who had been a leader of another party – in other words, Mulcahy. This was almost certainly a tactful way of getting Mulcahy off the pitch – as commander in chief of the army during the Civil War, he was intensely disliked in Labour and Clann na Poblachta. To his credit, Mulcahy immediately agreed to stand aside – to him, getting Dev out was more important than any personal ambition.
It was then that Costello’s name was mentioned – Norton asked that he come along to the next meeting to give his advice and help. The Labour leader knew Costello well, having settled a dispute over civil servants conditions when Norton was a union leader and Costello was Attorney General. Costello also knew MacBride well through the Law Library, and was well regarded by all sides.
The next day, to his intense surprise, Costello was told that he was being talked of as a potential Taoiseach. When he met his Fine Gael colleagues in Mulcahy’s house that evening, he claimed he was completely unfit for the job – but his colleagues overruled him, and said that no-one else would be acceptable to the other parties. They put so much pressure on him that he finally gave his provisional agreement – then went home to break the news to his family.
Bizarrely, he told his wife, Ida, that his new job would be less stressful than being a barrister, that it would mean less night work and less worry. That statement alone showed how unprepared he was for the job!
Costello’s acceptance was still provisional – he wrestled with his decision during his usual Sunday round of golf in Portmarnock with three friends. To his surprise, they recommended he accept. But he said he wouldn’t make a final decision without consulting his old friend from UCD, solicitor Arthur Cox.
Cox pointed out that by entering politics, Costello had been ‘playing with fire’ – and he had to expect to get burned at some stage! And then he made the clinching argument – if Costello refused, and the alternative government failed to get off the ground, he would regret it for the rest of his life. And so, despite his doubts, he agreed.
So, the potential alternative government now had a Taoiseach – but it still didn’t have a majority. Fine Gael, Labour, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan, and a group of Independents led by James Dillon were on board – but National Labour with its five TDs was not.
Most people assumed that National Labour would support de Valera. Its trade union backers, the Congress of Irish Unions, directed that they should do so. But Jim Everett, the National Labour leader, knew that de Valera would give them very little in return – opposition to coalition was still a ‘core value’ for Fianna Fáil in this era, so there were no Ministerial jobs on offer. And a minority de Valera government almost certainly meant an early general election – as it had in 1932, 1937, and 1943.
So, despite strong pressure, National Labour came on board, much to the disgust of Fianna Fáil, who realised too late that they were about to end up on the Opposition benches.
The parties agreed a programme for government of sorts, a ten point programme of policy points: increased agricultural and industrial production; a housing drive; a reduction in the cost of living; taxation of “unreasonable” profits; a comprehensive social security plan; the removal of taxes on tobacco, beer and cinema tickets introduced in a Supplementary Budget the previous Autumn; facilities for TB patients; the establishment of a Council of Education; a National Drainage Plan; and modifications to the means test for old age, widows and blind pensions.
It was, of course, a primitive programme by today’s standards. But – surprisingly – the Government held together rather well. At the start, most people predicted it would be lucky to last six months, but it stayed in office for three and a half years, and had a reasonable record, including the creation of the IDA and the Arts Council, the declaration of the Republic, and the introduction of the Capital Budget – a – very – tentative step towards Keynesian economic policies.
There were, of course, downsides too. One was the famous “Battle of Baltinglass”, where Jim Everett, National Labour leader and Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, tried to appoint a crony as postmaster in the Wicklow village, leading to a determined protest by locals in favour of the family who had been running the post office for decades. Costello could see the funny side – speaking at UCD’s Literary and Historical Society he rejected claims that he was omnipotent: “Power!” he said, “Why, we couldn’t even cook up a job in a village post office!”
The first coalition led to changes in the way Government worked. There were a lot more Cabinet committees, for a start, in an attempt to solve difficult issues in small groups rather than at Cabinet. There was also a very powerful Economic Committee, which decided most of the main budgetary issues – a forerunner of the present Government’s Economic Management Council.
There was a certain mistrust of the civil service, after 16 years of working under Fianna Fáil, particularly on the part of Sean MacBride, who seemed to think his Department of External Affairs was riddled with British agents. On MacBride’s insistence, the Secretary to the Government, Maurice Moynihan, was excluded from Cabinet meetings, which left Chief Whip Liam Cosgrave – or, in his absence, Costello himself – to take the minutes. Not a recipe for efficiency, and a major factor in some of the controversies surrounding the government.
And there was less insistence on the iron discipline exhibited by Fianna Fáil governments, who had their arguments in the Cabinet Room but presented a united front in public. Costello allowed ministers to speak in a personal capacity, even if they contradicted government policy. Sean Lemass suggested the Taoiseach should arrange to have a flag flown over Government Buildings whenever a minister was saying something that was expected to be taken seriously.
But, despite opposition sneers, the difficulty of managing a coalition, and his own self-doubt, Costello proved a more effective Taoiseach than anyone had expected – although his unusual approach to diplomacy was to prove quite controversial.