08 June 2011

The death of a good man: Declan Costello

Declan Costello, 1 August 1926 - 6 June 2011

My first clear recollection of a political campaign in Ireland is that leading up to the general election of 30 May 1951. I had just turned eight and lived in the constituency of Dublin North West, which elected three deputies to the Dáil (parliament). I remember a young candidate speaking from the back of a lorry. He spoke approvingly of President Eisenhower of the USA, as I recall. That young man was Declan Costello, son of the outgoing Taoiseach (Prime Minister), John A. Costello. He headed the poll and was the youngest member of the 14th Dáil. He died yesterday in Dublin after a long illness.

I never met Declan Costello personally but had an encounter with him at a forum for young people about nine years later when I was still in secondary school. He was one of the invited speakers and I disgreed with something he said about the Irish language, then as now an emotive topic. Speaking from the floor with all the brashness of a 17-year-old I told him 'you are talking through your hat'.

Like his father, Declan Costello was a distinguished barrister. Like his father he became attorney-general, in the government of 1973-1977 led by Liam Cosgrave. An extraordinary thing about that government was that three members held the same positions as their fathers had done in the 1920s when W. T Cosgrave, father of Liam, was the leader of the government, John A. Costello the attorney-general and Desmond FitzGerald foreign minister, the position his son Garret held in the younger Cosgrave's cabinet. There was no nepotism here. The sons were as distinguished in their own right as their fathers had been.

Declan Costello had a deep sense of social justice and the document Towards a Just Society, used by his Fine Gael party in the 1965 election campaign, was inspired by his thinking, though it didn't go as far as he would have liked.

After retiring from politics Declan Costello became a member of the High Court in 1977 where he served for twenty years, the last three years as President of the Court. In 1992 in what became known as the 'X Case' Mr Justice Costello granted an injunction to the attorney-general to prevent a 14-year-old girl, the victim of a rape by a neighbour, from going to Britain to have an abortion. The injunction was overturned by the Supreme Court. (As it happened, the girl had a miscarriage and the rapist had a 14-year sentence reduced to four).

Reviewing a TV programme on this event in March last year Brendan O'Regan wrote in The Irish Catholic: Originally the High Court upheld his injunction, and one thing that struck me was the logic and common sense in Justice Declan Costello's judgement - that the abortion couldn't be approved because, given that mother and baby had equal rights, the threat of death from abortion was more certain for the baby than the possibility of suicide by the girl in question. And yet the Supreme Court overturned this, with what seemed to me then and still does, bizarre and illogical ''reasoning'' by four of the five judges.

An editorial in today's The Irish Times describes Declan Costello as Radical on economic and social matters, he was deeply conservative on moral issues. On appointment to the High Court, his judgments tended to reflect traditional Catholic values. I have always found this descripton of individuals as 'radical on social issues but conservative on moral issues' as curious. Surely all issues involving the good of society and individuals are moral issues. The description seems to suggest that such individuals, including Blessed John Paul II, were schizophrenic to some degree rather than persons whose faith or philosophy of life permeated everything they did.

The editorial concludes: Through it all, he worked for socially important reforms, founding and supporting St Michael’s House for people with intellectual disabilities. A man of intelligence, integrity and fairness, his contribution to public life has deeply influenced Irish politics and established a link between economic development and a more caring and egalitarian society.

I hadn't been aware until now of Declan Costello's involvement with St Michael's House. Indeed I wasn't even aware of St Michael's House. Its website today has this: The Board of Directors, service users, families and staff of St. Michael’s House wish to express their deepest sympathies to his wife Joan and family on the sad passing of one of our founding members and President Declan Costello.

Declan will be remembered for his pioneering work in developing educational services for children with an intellectual disability and for his lifelong commitment to ensuring that people with a disability are equal members of society.

The website of St Michael's House gives this brief history of its beginnings: Unable to secure schooling for her son, Patricia Farrell, the mother of a young boy with Down Syndrome placed an ad in the Irish Times in 1955: "Association for Parents of Mentally Backward Children. Lady wishing to form above would like to contact anyone interested. Box Z 5061 Children."

From this grew St. Michael's House, an organisation which set out to develop new community services and bring about a change in how people with an intellectual disability were viewed. Today, we provide services for 1,585 people with an intellectual disability and their families in the Greater Dublin Area.

Declan Costello chaired the public meeting that resulted from that newspaper ad and that led to the founding of St Michael's House.
It seems that Declan Costello had a  vision for persons with intellectual disabilities similar to that of his Canadian contemporary Jean Vanier, another distinghuished son of a distinguished father.

Declan Costello was a good man. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal. May his noble soul be at the right hand of God. 

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