Taoiseach Profile: The first Inter-Party government leader, John A Costello

Well, it was never going to be that easy

Taoiseach Profile, John A Costello, General Election

Image via Oireachtas

With the General Election nearly upon us, we take a look back at some of the Taoisigh that have graced the halls of the Leinster House, what their greatest political achievements were and how this has impacted directly on Ireland.

From Eamon DeValera to Enda Kenny, the careers of these Taoisigh changed the course of Ireland's political history and helped form this little nation.

The third in our series today is John A.Costello, the leader of the Fine Gael party and Taoiseach for just three short years from 1954 to 1957.

Who was he?

Born in Dublin in 1891, Costello was the son of a civil servant and graduated from college with a degree in law and languages. He studied at King's Inn and was called to the bar in 1914, serving as a barrister until 1922.

He joined the office of the Attorney General in 1922, eventually becoming Attorney General in 1926, a position he lost once Fianna Fáil came into power in 1932. He entered the Dáil in 1933.

Before his election as Taoiseach, Costello famously made a controversial speech in the Dáil concerning the Blueshirts in which he stated: "The Minister gave extracts from various laws on the Continent, but he carefully refrained from drawing attention to the fact that the Blackshirts were victorious in Italy and that the Hitler Shirts were victorious in Germany, as, assuredly, in spite of this Bill...the Blueshirts will be victorious in the Irish Free State."

Costello lost his seat in 1943 but regained it in 1944. 

Inter-party government

Despite the fact that Fianna Fáil were blamed for the downturn in the economy following the war, they were still the largest party in the Dáil following the 1948 General Election. However, all the other parties in the Dáil decided they would band together to create the first inter-party government.

Due to the divisions of the past, the coalition sought to nominate a Taoiseach who was a little more separated from the violene the State had seen and would be agreeable to all parties. Even though Mulcahy was the obvious favourite from this, they nominated Costello as Taoiseach.

In their three very short years, the Inter-party government certainly managed to shake things up a bit. 

During a State visit to Canada, Costello announced that his government would repeal the External Relations Act of 1936, which essentially ensured Ireland remained as one of the Commonwealth nations, and declare Ireland a republic, much to the surprise of English and some Irish ministers.

When the act was repealed, Ireland was granted its independence and also ensured that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom. Ireland left the Empire on the 18th of April 1949.

The beginning of the end

The biggest scandal, and one which eventually led to the collapse of the government, was the infamous Mother and Child Scheme created by Noel Browne. Browne wanted to introduce free health care to mothers and children under 16 in order to prevent more deaths from TB. However, his bill was opposed by doctors, who feared loss of income and the Catholic bishops, who were fearful of the rise of abortion and contraception, stating it was the family's place to look after their children.

The bill divided the cabinet and Costello refused to support it. Browne resigned and the act was morphed into further health acts which wouldn't have cost the State as much as the free care he proposed.

The government soldiered on but with a new divide, made worse by the fact that two TDs withdrew their support. The economy was failing and with much fragmentation, Costello called a General Election in 1951 with Fianna Fáil returning to power.

Impact on Politics

Following his defeat in the General Election, Costello resigned as Taoiseach but remained as parliamentary leader. He returned to power in 1954 but with the economy in tatters, was unable to have much of an impact. However, Ireland became a member of the UN under his control and the great tradition of going to the White House on St Patrick's Day began in 1956. Beaten down by two motions of no confidence, he again called a General Election.

Although he had a very short time in power, Costello made sure that Ireland was declared a republic in the period of his government. He also improved international relations remarkably, particularly with the United States. A new house-building record was set during the period and Noel Browne brought in a vaccination for TB also. 

Best Speech - Extract from The Republic of Ireland BillWednesday, 24 November 1948

As I said before and now repeat, I recommend this Bill to the Dáil and ask for its unanimous acceptance by the Dáil. It will, I believe, if it is passed in a spirit of goodwill, if it is passed unanimously, do and achieve what its primary purpose hopes for; to bring peace here in this part of our country and by bringing this country well on to the international stage, by lifting this problem of Partition from the domestic arena and putting it on the international scene, give us not a faint hope but a clear prospect of bringing about the unity of Ireland.

I should like to say one more thing in conclusion. There have been sometimes smug, sometimes fearsome declarations [397] by British Ministers or British Governments that the problem of Partition is an Irish problem, that must be settled between Irishmen. That Pilate-like attitude can no longer be held by statesmen with the courage and decency to look facts in the face. This problem was created by an Act of the British Parliament, the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. It may be insisting on the obvious, but I have had occasion to insist very strongly on the obvious in recent months. That Act of 1920 was passed before the Treaty of 1921 and it is surprising how many people think that the Partition of our country was effected by the Treaty of 1921. The problem was created by the British Government and the British Parliament and it is for them to solve the problem. They cannot wash their hands of it and clear themselves of responsibility for it. The Act of 1920 is a very poor title for a claim which is not based upon morality and justice. The Government of the six north-eastern counties claim that and assert it by virtue of a majority, a statutorily created majority, a majority created deliberately under the Act of 1920 to coerce and keep within the bounds of their so-called State masses of our Catholic people and fellow Irishmen who do not want to be there. That Act of 1920 was put on the Statute Book and brought into operation without a single vote cast in its favour by any Irish representative in the British Parliament or without anybody North or South wanting it. Therefore the problem of undoing that wrong devolves upon the British Government. We are doing our part down here. We are doing our part by this Bill.

The whole basis of the case I make for this Bill is founded on goodwill, is founded on the end of bitterness. It is founded on a sincere desire to have greater goodwill with Great Britain. We hope through the creation of that goodwill, through fostering further goodwill, that that will help materially to induce the British Government and Great Britain to take a hand in the undoing of the wrong for which their predecessors were responsible in 1920. We believe that this Bill, by creating conditions [398] on which that goodwill can increase, will help towards the solution of the problem of Partition. We hold out, as I said here earlier to-day, the hand of friendship to the decent people of Northern Ireland and they can be assured if they come in here, end this great wrong and come into a unified Ireland, they will be doing good work for themselves, for the whole of Ireland and for that country to which they proclaim their intense loyalty, Great Britain, and the Commonwealth of Nations and be giving a lasting contribution to the peace of the world.

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