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Address by Charles Flanagan TD on the occasion of the commemoration in honour of former Taoiseach, John A. Costello

19th June 2022 - Charles Flanagan TD

Address by Charles Flanagan TD, Chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs & Defence, 19th June 2022, on the occasion of the commemoration in honour of former Taoiseach, John A. Costello

I am privileged to have been asked to give this commemoration address today in honour of former Taoiseach, John A. Costello. I want to thank Senator Barry Ward and all those involved in organising this event which is now a firm fixture on the political calendar.

I do have an affinity with two central concerns of Mr. Costello’s life – the law and politics. I also have two personal links to him which I cherish very much and would like to share with you today. The first link is through my father.  In the second Inter-Party government 1954-57 he appointed my father as Parliamentary secretary (Minister of State) in the Department of Agriculture. For my father and my family, it was a personal and professional honour and an opportunity not forgotten. The second link is a gift he sent to me on my christening. It is a silver jug. I have it with me here today and the now faded card which came with the gift.

Born in 1891 John A Costello lived through a tumultuous period of Irish History. He was not part of the revolutionary generation. He took no part in the War of Independence or the Civil War. In contrast the different paths taken by John A. Costello and Sean Heuston. Both were born in 1891 and both attended O’ Connell’s Boys CBS School. They were classmates and are seen together in a 1906 photograph of school prize winners. Sean Heuston was executed at the age of 25 on May 8, 1916. John A. Costello took a different path and went on to lead a very full life and died peacefully in 1976 at the age of 84.

John A. Costello did not come from a privileged background. But he did come from a solid, relatively comfortable background. He was from a family of three children, a rather small family at the time. His father, also called John, was a civil servant and a supporter of the Parnellite wing of the Irish Parliamentary party.

Costello senior had a strong interest in public and civic life and after his retirement from the civil service was a member of Dublin Corporation from 1930 to 1936 when he died suddenly. Perhaps by nature and upbringing John A. Costello was in fact, prepared for public life.

In many respects John A. Costello was a self-made man. He excelled at school and at college, winning many prizes, bursaries, and scholarships, most notably a valuable scholarship which paid for his college fees at UCD. As well as being gifted academically he also had a strong work ethic throughout his whole life. He did not have any family connections in the legal profession, although his father worked in the registry of deeds. He appears to have had a great capacity to relate to people and to network. When opportunities came his way early in his professional life, he could seize them. He could be acerbic and fiery but was also known for his modesty, generosity, lack of bitterness and loyalty to colleagues. It was his personal characteristics and the fact that he had no Civil War baggage that made him an acceptable choice to become Taoiseach of the first Inter-Party Government in 1948 and for a second time in 1954. In the words of Noel Hartnett of Clann na Poblachta – “all members of the Inter-Party governments trusted and respected him”

 But do not think he was a pushover. Far from it – he was most competitive by nature. His competitive instincts were honed at UCD in the L & H debating society. Of course, the Law Library and the Law Courts where he spent much of his life has always been a very competitive environment. Winning cases gave him great satisfaction. Law, rather than politics, was very much his first love. Apart from his two periods as Taoiseach he maintained a busy legal practice as Senior Counsel all his life and continued to work well into his 80s.

Two things that are not particularly well known about him – he was an avid golfer from a very young age, and he was also enthusiastic about the benefits of cigarette smoking.

John A. Costello was a strong family man. He had an unwavering commitment to his Catholic faith. The rule of law and the practice of law was one of his core values. He was also an exceptionally hard worker.  Intelligence, hard work and an attractive personality are a winning combination. He was a true Irish patriot, committed to advancing the interests of Ireland and all its people wherever and whenever possible.

The first Inter-Party government 1948-51 with John A. Costello as Taoiseach was certainly a political novelty at the time. Comprising five parties and supported by several independents it was a major step away from the legacy of Civil War politics. It was a “makeshift majority” in the words of historian and broadcaster David McCullagh and had some significant achievements. In housing for example, local authority housebuilding increased from 744 houses in 1947 to just over 8,000 in 1950.

There was also a strong hospital building programme and rapid advances were made in bringing the scourge of TB under control.  With James Dillon as Minister significant investment was also made to increase agricultural output. The industrial policy of protectionism began to be eased during Costello’s first government.

As regards John A. Costello’s core identity speaking in the Dáil on May 12 – 1951 – on the resignation of Dr. Noel Browne he said – “I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first”. He was a daily mass goer for his whole life.  That was him; his faith was also accompanied by active involvement in Catholic charitable organisations. John A. Costello was not unique in this regard as I know from my own family.

Mainstream Irish nationalism has always been to a large extent an expression of Irish Catholic identity. In some respects, Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism were two sides of the one coin. This type of narrow nationalism was far removed from Wolf Tone’s political ambitions to replace Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter with the common name of Irishman. The political dilemma on the island of Ireland has never been fully resolved. How can the two political identities – the Irish identity and the British identity be reconciled with each other? When religion is so closely linked to political identity as it was in Ireland it is bad for politics and bad for religion.

When the Irish and British government work closely together we know that progress can be made. We also know that the Irish Question was used in the early years of the last century for party political advantage by the British Conservative Party. It appears that the present leadership of the Conservative party is now willing to act in a similar fashion. Beginning with Sunningdale in the 1970s successive British and Irish governments have worked together to resolve the complexities of relationships within Northern Ireland and between our two islands. The trust between the two governments that was so carefully developed during the last 50 years has now been fractured by this Conservative government. Trust has also broken down between the UK and the EU. This UK government is no longer seen by the EU as a good faith partner.  We can only hope that other voices within the Conservative Party will take a more principled stand.

Over the course of his career John A. Costello was directly involved in the great political developments. As Attorney General to the Irish Government from 1926 to 1932 he played a central role in expanding Ireland’s freedom at the Imperial Conferences. It was the Cumann na nGaedheal government of the 1920s that realised Michael Collins view of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that it gave – “freedom to achieve freedom”.  John A. Costello believed that an Irish Republic would be the final stage of the long journey to Irish freedom. That and taking the gun out of Irish politics was his motivation in introducing the Republic of Ireland Act in 1948.

Anglo Irish relations and Ireland’s place in the world were central pre-occupations of John A. Costello and his governments. Issues such as defence and possible membership of NATO were hotly debated during his first term in office. There were heated discussions on Ireland’s acceptance of funding under the US Marshall Aid programme for Europe. Ireland became member of the UN in 1955 during his second term in office. It was during his second term in office, on March 14 – 1956 – that an Irish Taoiseach was first received in the White House, beginning a long and very beneficial special relationship with the United States. Sucessive administrations played a central role in the Irish Peace Process and the current administration and senior figures in Capital Hill have Ireland’s back during the current difficulties on the Northern Ireland Protocol and we very much appreciate this.

The issues John A. Costello confronted are also among the issues that confront us today. Geography and history matter. Political developments in Britain and the future of the UK will always be of immediate interest to Ireland. What is different from John A Costello’s time in active politics is that the Irish Republic is now a member of the European Union. Irish people are not just citizens of an Irish Republic; we are also citizens of the European Union. Ireland’s wellbeing is inextricably linked with our membership of the EU.

All levels of society need to intensify our engagement with mainland Europe. The EU remains a steadfast defender of Ireland’s interests on Brexit. The time has now come for Ireland to share the burden of security and defence with our EU and wider European partners. There is now an urgent need to invest in our defence forces and fully engage with the EU Strategic Compass and European peace facility on defence and security issues.

At a time of political uncertainty in the UK and in Northern Ireland, the Irish government and the Irish people must re-affirm their commitment to peace making. In this regard I strongly support Micheal Martin’s Shared Island approach. As citizens of an independent Republic, we have both the freedom and the obligation to reach out to both communities in Northern Ireland in a spirit of generosity and goodwill.

We should engage with the work of making peace with an open mind and an open heart. Irish Nationalism and British Unionism on the island of Ireland have never reconciled with each other and in many respects remain poles apart. Sadly, both, have brow beaten people into making binary political identity choices.

As the dominant political ideology on the Island and even within its own state, Irish Nationalism, has the greater responsibility for the future of peace on the island. We often recall John Hume’s concept, of, “uniting the people not the territory”. John A. Costello would have been proud of John Hume’ s words.

Currently the politics of Northern Ireland is very much a zero-sum game. We need to continue to persuade the British government to work with us to change the zero-sum political dynamic into a win-win dynamic.  Making Northern Ireland the best place it can be for all its people must be the guiding principle of this approach. Sinn Fein continue to raise political fears by the constant beating of the United Ireland drum. Preparations for a border poll are premature, hasty, and divisive.  Meetings and gatherings across the island preparing for a United Ireland without Unionism are without realism. There is little evidence that the people of Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland. In fact, there is doubt if even the majority of people in the republic would vote for a united Ireland, at this time. If the Protocol remains in place Northern Ireland will continue to have the best of both worlds. Economic indicators are showing that Northern Ireland is already benefitting from this unique position. Why would people vote to change that situation?

John A. Costello lived through two world wars. Once again, an imperial war of aggression has broken out in Europe. Ireland’s struggle for independence means we stand with Ukraine in defence of its freedom. But we also know the suppression of ethnic, linguistic, or religious minorities by dominant nationalist ideologies is also a recipe for failure.

The first Inter-Party government in 1948 began the process of opening Ireland to the world. Fifty years ago, after Ireland joined the European Economic Community the process of change rapidly accelerated.  During the first decades of independence, Ireland was a relatively isolated, enclosed and inward looking. In many respects the last 50 years have been a golden period in Irish history. Ireland is now a dynamic, prosperous, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, outward looking society. We are blessed with a robust civic society – community, voluntary, sporting, cultural. We have a sound educational sector. As a country we enjoy high levels of respect and a positive reputation around the world. Ireland is now ranked among the highest in the world in the UN Human Development Index. Our political system is very open, is now well regulated and largely free from corruption or the influence of big money, as Costello would have had it.

Some of the problems we now face are the problems of success. A rising population, a robust economy, increased inward migration and rapidly growing refugee numbers are all placing strains on housing, education and healthcare and other public services.

The next 50 years are likely to be much more challenging.

We are living through a time of change and political uncertainty in our immediate neighbourhood and in Europe. Leaving aside the immediate political risks there is also the much deeper threat to the natural world arising from human economic activity. The natural world and our place in it are in danger.

We must be willing to read the signs of the times we live in.   Courage and resilience will be required in the years ahead.  But above all we must face the future with confidence and hope. In the words of the environmentalist David Orr – “hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up”.

And John A. Costello does have something to say to us in this regard. He never felt bound by the past. He respected the past, but he lived in the present and looked to the future. He faced what was in front of him with an open mind and a determination to act for the common good.  He lived and enjoyed a very full life. To do the same is all we can ask for.

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