The reluctant Taoiseach
Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of a remarkable man, the third head of an independent Irish government, John A Costello.
If you don’t know much about him, you’re not alone. He has been sadly overlooked, despite being Taoiseach twice, and serving longer in that office than any subsequent Fine Gaeler – although his record will be broken if Enda Kenny is still Taoiseach on 19 April next year.
I have an interest to declare: I wrote a biography of him some years ago, and over the course of my research – reading his correspondence, talking to people who knew him, exploring his actions – I grew to like him as a person and admire him as a politician.
Yesterday, to mark the anniversary, I was asked to deliver a graveside oration, and I spoke about Costello’s career, and about how his example might prove useful to the current government.
Costello’s election as Taoiseach was unusual: he genuinely didn’t want the job, and he wasn’t even leader of his own party. After the 1948 election, when Fianna Fáil lost its overall majority after 16 years in power, it became clear that an alternative government was possible.
But it could only happen if all the other parties – Fine Gael, Labour, National Labour, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan and most of the Independents – joined together.
A tall order, to put it mildly, but it turned out it was possible – because all those parties knew that the only way they would ever get to sit around the cabinet table was to work together; and because all of them, for different reasons, were anxious to get Fianna Fáil out.
So they agreed to form a government – the only problem was who would lead it. Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy wasn’t acceptable to some of the other parties, so an alternative had to be found – and everyone agreed that the only viable alternative was John A Costello.
Well, almost everyone. Because the one person who didn’t think Costello was the best choice was Costello himself.
At first he treated the idea as a joke – and a joke in bad taste at that; then he refused to consider it; finally, he was persuaded that he was the only one who could do the job, that without him the alternative government couldn’t be formed. Eventually he gave in – though until the actual vote on his nomination was taken, he continued to hope that something would turn up to scupper the deal.
Why was he a reluctant Taoiseach? Money played a part in it – leaving his lucrative practice at the Bar meant a significant cut in his income. Reluctance to leave the law played a part too. But the real reason was explained in a letter to his son Declan, then in Switzerland: “It was not the financial loss or even the parting from my life’s work as an advocate… 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. I felt that such a new departure would be looked upon with distrust and be subjected to severe criticism. If I proved unfit it would be disastrous for them all.”
So here we have this extraordinary man, taking up the top job in Irish politics despite his modesty, despite his reluctance, despite the odds stacked against him and his colleagues.
In fact, it may sound a bit familiar – an unprecedented type of government; a strange mix of supporters; a Taoiseach seen as being in a weaker position than usual. But while most people gave Costello’s government six months at most, it lasted three-and-a-half years. And how it managed to survive might give some pointers for current politicians.
The first thing the new Taoiseach had to learn was not to obsess about winning every vote in the Dáil. In a radio broadcast after the government was formed, Costello said the Dáil would become “a deliberative assembly rather than a machine for registering the will of a majority party”. Again, a very familiar sentiment.
A second lesson was that sometimes collective Cabinet responsibility had to be relaxed just a little. Costello had to explain this to Joe Brennan, the Governor the Central Bank, who was understandably upset after being attacked in public by the Minister for External Affairs, Seán MacBride. Costello told Brennan that: “It was considered permissible for a minister in an individual or party capacity to give public expression to views which might not necessarily be those of the government as such.”
Ministers allowed to say what they liked, even if it contradicted Government policy? This certainly was “new politics”. Seán Lemass of Fianna Fáil was not impressed – he asked if Costello could “arrange to have some signal given, such as the flying of a flag over Government Buildings, whenever a minister is speaking in a manner in which he is expected to be taken seriously.”
Finally, I think one of the lessons Costello learned is that no coalition can stick together if political decision making becomes a zero-sum game, where if one party or group wins, the others lose. The rules have to be changed, to make governing a positive sum game, where everyone wins a little bit, and where no one wins at someone else’s expense.
Costello and his colleagues managed to do that by changing the budgetary rules to allow for more investment in public services. This was justified by the theories of Keynes, which were coming into fashion even in Ireland at that time. They were also lucky enough to find a pot of gold at the end of the Marshall Plan rainbow – American loan-funded schemes which kept the various parties happy.
Loosening the purse strings and spending more money was certainly good politically – whether it was good economically is another question. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, control of public spending was identified early on as a possible problem for our current minority coalition.
What the career of John A Costello does show is that sometimes innovations in politics can work, and work relatively well, which might give some comfort to today’s politicians.