John A. Costello

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An Taoiseach John A. Costello
Rank 2nd Taoiseach
First Term February 18, 1948 - June 13, 1951
Second Term June 2, 1954 - March 20, 1957
Predecessor Eamon de Valera
Successor Eamon de Valera
Date of Birth June 20, 1891
Place of Birth Dublin, Ireland
Date of Death January 5, 1976
Place of Death Dublin, Ireland
Political Party Fine Gael
Profession Barrister

John Aloysius Costello (20 June, 1891 - 5 January, 1976), a successful barrister, was one of the main legal advisors to the government of the Irish Free State after independence, Attorney-General of Ireland from 1926-1932 and Taoiseach from 1948-1951 and 1954-1957.


Early Life

John A. Costello was born on June 20, 1891 in Dublin. Educated at O’Connell School and University College Dublin, he 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 began practising as a barrister. He worked as a barrister until 1922 when he joined the staff of the Attorney-General in the newly established Irish Free State. Three years later Costello was called to the inner bar and the following year, 1926, he became Attorney-General to the Cumann na nGaedhael government, led by William T. Cosgrave. While serving in this position he represented Ireland 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 when Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932. The following year, however, he succeeded in getting elected to Dáil Éireann as a Cumann na nGaedhael, and later a Fine Gael TD.

Costello remained on the backbenches of the Dáil until 1948. While he was re-elected at all the general elections until then he wasn't a widely-known TD or a member of the Fine Gael hierarchy. This all changed following the 1948 General Election when a change of government was iminent. 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 still showed Fianna Fáil to be the largest party, with twice as many seats as the nearest party, Fine Gael. While it looked as if Fianna Fáil were heading for a seventh consecutive general election victory in a row all the other parties in the Dáil joined to form the first inter-party government in the history of the Irish state. The coalition consisted of Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the National Labour Party, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan and several Independent TDs. While it looked as if co-operation between these parties would be inconceivable a shared dislike of Fianna Fáil and Eamon de Valera overcame all other difficulties and the government was formed.

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 Mulchay's record during the Civil War. Instead, Mulcahy unselfishly stepped aside and allowed Costello to become Taoiseach. Costello, who had never held a ministerial position and who hadn't sought the leadership was now the leader of a complex government. Much of its success would depend on his leadership skills.

Declaration of the Republic

One issue which may have created tensions between a government made up of Republicans and Free Staters was the country's relationship with Britain. However, no problems arose. During the campaign Clann na Poblachta had promised to repeal the External Relations Act of 1936, but didn't make an issue of this when the government was being formed. However, Costello and his Tánaiste, William Norton of the the Labour Party, also disliked the Act. During the summer of 1948 the Cabinet discussed repealing the Act however no firm decision had been made.

In September 1948 Costello was on an official visit to Canada when a reporter asked him about the possibility of leaving the British Commonwealth. Costello seemed angry by the question and immediately declared publicly that the government was indeed going to repeal the Act and decale a republic. The news took the British Government, and even some of Costello's ministers, by surprise. The former had not been consulted, however, they did not want to lose face and so issued the Ireland Act. This guaranteed the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom while at the same time granting certain concessions to the new republic. Finally on Monday April 18, 1949 the twenty-six county Irish Free State left the Commonwealth and became the Republic of Ireland. While the last few links to Britain had finally been cut and there was a psychological change, in reality little had changed. From now on partition was seen as the only obstacle to uniting Ireland, North and South.

Mother & Child Scheme

In 1950 the independent-minded Minister for Health, Dr. Noel Browne, introduced a new Health Bill commonly referred to as 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. However, the bill was opposed by Irish doctors, who feared a loss of income, and Roman Catholic Bishops, who feared the scheme could lead to birth control and abortion. The Cabinet was divided over the issue, many feeling that the state couldn't afford such as scheme. Costello and many more in the Cabinet made it clear that in the face of such opposition they would not support Minister. Browne resigned from the government on April 11, 1951 and the scheme was dropped. He immediately published his correspondance with Costello and the Bishops, something wich had hitherto not been done.

Coalition Achievements

The Costello Government had a number of noteworthy achievements. A new record was set in house-building, the Industrial Development Authority and Córas Tráchtála were established, and the Minister for Health, Noel Browne, brought about a spectacular advance in the treatment of tuberculosis. Ireland also joined a number of organisations such as the Organisation for European Economic Co-Operation and the Council of Europe. However, the government refused to join NATO as it would mean recognising Northern Ireland. The scheme to supply electricity to even the remotest parts of Ireland was also accelerated.

Election Defeat

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 priced 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 of 1951. The result was inconclusive but Fianna Fáil returned to power. Costello resigned as Taoiseach. 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.

Taoiseach 1954-1957

In June 1954 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. Unfortunately the government could do little to change the ailing nature of Ireland's economy, with emigration and unemployment remaining high. Costello's government did have some success with Ireland becoming a member of the United Nations in 1955. Although the government had a comfortable majority and seemed set for a full term in office, an outbreak of militant republican activity in Northern Ireland and Britain caused internal strains. The Irish Government|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. Fianna Fáil also tabled its own motion of no confidence, and, rather than face almost certain defeat, Costello again asked President Ó Ceallaigh to dissolve the Dáil and Seanad. The general election which followed in 1957 gave Fianna Fáil an overall majority and started another sixteen years of unbroken rule for the party.


Following the defeat Costello returned to the bar and for the second time overcame the tradition that a practice could not be built up again after years of absence. In 1959, when Richard Mulcahy resigned the leadership of Fine Gael to James Dillon, Costello retired to the backbenches. He remained on as a TD until 1961 when he retired from politics.

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 Eamon de Valera. He practised at the bar up to a short time before his death in Dublin on January 5, 1976.

First Government, February 1948 - June 1951


Second Government, June 1954 - March 1957

Political Career

Preceded by:
John O'Byrne
Attorney-General of Ireland
Succeeded by:
Conor Maguire
Preceded by:
Richard Mulcahy
Parliamentary Leader of Fine Gael
Succeeded by:
James Dillon

Template:Succession box two to two Template:End box

Template:Taoisigh na hÉireannnl:John A. Costello


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