John Aloysius Costello (20 June 1891 – 5 January 1976) was an Irish Fine Gael politician who served as Taoiseach from 1948 to 1951 and from 1954 to 1957, Leader of the Opposition from 1951 to 1954 and from 1957 to 1959, and Attorney General of Ireland from 1926 to 1932. He served as a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1933 to 1943 and from 1944 to 1969.
Costello was born on 20 June 1891, in Fairview, Dublin. He was a younger son of John Costello senior, a civil servant, and Rose Callaghan.
He was educated at St. Joseph's Secondary C.B.S., Fairview, and then moved to O'Connell School, for senior classes, and then attended University College Dublin and graduated with a degree in modern languages and law. He studied at King's Inns to become a barrister, winning the Victoria Prize there in 1913 and 1914.
Costello was called to the bar in 1914, and practised as a barrister until 1922.
Irish Free State
In 1922, Costello joined the staff of the Attorney General in the newly established Irish Free State. Three years later he was called to the inner bar, and the following year, 1926, he became Attorney General of Ireland, upon the formation of the Cumann na nGaedheal government, led by W. T. Cosgrave. While serving in this position he represented the Free State at Imperial Conferences and League of Nations meetings.
He was also elected a Bencher of the Honourable Society of King's Inns. Costello lost his position as Attorney General of Ireland, when Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932. The following year, however, he was elected to Dáil Éireann as a Cumann na nGaedheal Teachta Dála (TD). Cumann na nGaedheal soon merged with other parties to form Fine Gael).
On 28 February 1934, during a Dáil debate on a bill to outlaw the wearing of uniforms (a bill specifically designed to curtail the Blueshirts, a uniformed movement then associated with Fine Gael and formed to defend their candidates, meeting and rallies from IRA attack), Costello made a speech opposing the bill that has generated controversy ever since. In response to an assertion by Minister for Justice P. J. Ruttledge, that the Blueshirts had fascist leanings like the Italian Blackshirts and German Brownshirts, and that other European nations had taken similar actions against similar organisations, Costello stated:
The remark was a small part of a much longer speech whose main point was that the bill was an unconstitutional over-reaction by the Fianna Fáil government and an unfair scapegoating of the Blueshirts movement. However, the quote has since been the subject of much historical debate regarding the extent to which the Blueshirts, and by extension Fine Gael – and Costello himself – had ties to European fascist movements.
During the Dáil debate on the Emergency Powers Act 1939, Costello was highly critical of the Act's arrogation of powers, stating that
In 1948, Fianna Fáil had been in power for sixteen consecutive years and had been blamed for a downturn in the economy following World War II. The general election results showed Fianna Fáil short of a majority, but still by far the largest party, with twice as many seats as the nearest rival, Fine Gael. It appeared that Fianna Fáil was headed for a seventh term in government.
However, the other parties in the Dáil realised that between them, they had only one seat fewer than Fianna Fáil, and if they banded together, they would be able to form a government with the support of seven Independent deputies. Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the National Labour Party, Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Talmhan joined to form the first inter-party government in the history of the Irish state.
While it looked as if co-operation between these parties would not be feasible a shared opposition to Fianna Fáil and Éamon de Valera overcame all other difficulties and the coalition government was formed.
3rd Taoiseach (1948–1951)
Since Fine Gael was the largest party in the government, it had the task of providing a suitable candidate for Taoiseach. Naturally it was assumed that its leader, Richard Mulcahy, would be offered the post. However, he was an unacceptable choice to Clann na Poblachta and its deeply republican leader, Seán MacBride. This was due to Mulcahy's record during the Irish Civil War. Instead, Fine Gael and Clann na Poblachta agreed on Costello as a compromise candidate. Costello had never held a ministerial position nor was he involved in the Civil War. When told by Mulcahy of his nomination Costello was appalled, content with his life as a barrister and as a part-time politician. He was persuaded to accept the nomination as Taoiseach by close non-political friends.
During the campaign Clann na Poblachta had promised to repeal the External Relations Act of 1936, but did not make an issue of this when the government was being formed. However, Costello and his Tánaiste, William Norton of the Labour Party, also disliked the act. During the summer of 1948, the cabinet discussed repealing the act; however, no firm decision was made.
In September 1948, Costello was on an official visit to Canada when a reporter asked him about the possibility of Ireland leaving the British Commonwealth. Costello, for the first time, declared publicly that the Irish government was indeed going to repeal the External Relations Act and declare Ireland a republic. It has been suggested that this was a reaction to offence caused by the Governor General of Canada at the time, the Earl Alexander of Tunis, who was of Northern Irish descent and who allegedly arranged to have placed symbols of Northern Ireland—notably a replica of the famous Roaring Meg cannon used in the Siege of Derry—in front of Costello at an official dinner. Costello made no mention of these aspects on the second reading of the Republic of Ireland Bill on 24 November and, in his memoirs, claimed that Alexander's behaviour had in fact been perfectly civil and could have had no bearing on a decision which had already been made.
The news took the Government of the United Kingdom and even some of Costello's ministers by surprise. The former had not been consulted and, following the declaration of the Republic in 1949, the UK passed the Ireland Act that year. This recognised the Republic of Ireland and guaranteed the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom for so long as a majority there wanted to remain in the United Kingdom. It also granted full rights to any citizens of the republic living in the United Kingdom. Ireland left the Commonwealth on 18 April 1949, when the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 came into force. Frederick Henry Boland, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, said caustically that the affair demonstrated that "the Taoiseach has as much notion of diplomacy as I have of astrology." The British envoy Lord Rugby was equally critical of what he called a "slipshod and amateur" move.
In 1950, the independent-minded Minister for Health, Noel Browne, introduced the Mother and Child Scheme. The scheme would provide mothers with free maternity treatment and their children with free medical care up to the age of sixteen, which was normal provision in other parts of Europe at that time. The bill was opposed by doctors, who feared a loss of income, and Roman Catholic bishops, who opposed the lack of means testing envisaged and feared the scheme could lead to birth control and abortion. The cabinet was divided over the issue, many feeling that the state could not afford such a scheme priced at IR£2,000,000 annually. Costello and others in the cabinet made it clear that in the face of such opposition they would not support the Minister. Browne resigned from the government on 11 April 1951, and the scheme was dropped. He immediately published his correspondence with Costello and the bishops, something which had hitherto not been done. Derivatives of the Mother and Child Scheme would be introduced in Public Health Acts of 1954, 1957 and 1970.
Costello took the opportunity to reconfirm his beliefs in Catholicism on 12 April 1951, in his speech on Dr. Browne's resignation:
The Costello government had a number of noteworthy achievements. A new record was set in housebuilding, the Industrial Development Authority and Córas Tráchtála were established, and the Minister for Health, Noel Browne, with the then new Streptomycin, brought about an advance in the treatment of tuberculosis. Ireland also joined a number of organisations such as the Organization for European Economic Co-operation and the Council of Europe. However, the government refused to join NATO, allegedly because the British remained in Northern Ireland. The scheme to supply electricity to even the remotest parts of Ireland was also accelerated.
While the "Mother and Child" incident did destabilise the government to some extent, it did not lead to its collapse as is generally thought. The government continued; however, prices were rising, a balance of payments crisis was looming, and two TDs withdrew their support for the government. These incidents added to the pressure on Costello and so he decided to call a general election for June 1951. The result was inconclusive but Fianna Fáil returned to power. Costello resigned as Taoiseach. It was at this election that Costello's son Declan was elected to the Dáil.
Over the next three years while Fianna Fáil was in power a dual-leadership role of Fine Gael was taking place. While Richard Mulcahy was the leader of the party, Costello, who had proved his skill as Taoiseach, remained as parliamentary leader of the party. He resumed his practice at the Bar; what is arguably his most celebrated case, the successful defence of The Leader against a libel action brought by the poet Patrick Kavanagh, dates from this period. Kavanagh generously praised Costello's forensic skill, and the two men became friends.
At the 1954 general election Fianna Fáil lost power. A campaign dominated by economic issues resulted in a Fine Gael-Labour Party-Clann na Talmhan government coming to power. Costello was once again elected Taoiseach for the second time.
The government could do little to change the ailing nature of Ireland's economy, with emigration and unemployment remaining high, and external problems such as the Suez Crisis compounding the difficulty. Costello's government did have some success with Ireland becoming a member of the United Nations in 1955, and a highly successful visit to the United States in 1956, which began the custom by which the Taoiseach visits the White House each St. Patrick's Day to present the US President with a bowl of shamrock. Although the government had a comfortable majority and seemed set for a full term in office, a resumption of IRA activity in Northern Ireland and Great Britain caused internal strains (see Border Campaign). The government took strong action against the republicans.
In spite of supporting the government from the backbenches, Seán MacBride, the leader of Clann na Poblachta, tabled a motion of no confidence, based on the weakening state of the economy and in opposition to the government's stance on the IRA. Fianna Fáil also tabled its own motion of no confidence, and, rather than face almost certain defeat, Costello again asked President Seán T. O'Kelly to dissolve the Oireachtas. The general election which followed in 1957 gave Fianna Fáil an overall majority and started another sixteen years of unbroken rule for the party. Some of his colleagues questioned the wisdom of Costello's decision to call an election; the view was expressed that he was tired of politics, and depressed by his wife's sudden death the previous year.
Following the defeat of his government, Costello returned to the bar. In 1959, when Richard Mulcahy resigned the leadership of Fine Gael to James Dillon, Costello retired to the backbenches. Costello could have become party leader had he been willing to act in a full-time capacity. He remained as a TD until 1969, when he retired from politics, being succeeded as Fine Gael TD for Dublin South-East by Garret FitzGerald, who himself went onto to become Taoiseach in a Fine Gael-led government.
During his career he was presented with a number of awards from many universities in the United States. He was also a member of the Royal Irish Academy from 1948. In March 1975, he was made a freeman of the city of Dublin, along with his old political opponent Éamon de Valera. He practised at the bar until a short time before his death, in Dublin, on 5 January 1976, at the age of 84.
The following governments were led by Costello:
- 5th Government of Ireland (February 1948–June 1951)
- 7th Government of Ireland (June 1954–March 1957)