A missed opportunity: Conduct Unbecoming
Review: Des O’Malley’s impact on public life deserves a far better book than his own rambling account
Former PD leader Des O’Malley at the launch of his memoir Conduct Unbecoming in the Mansion House in Dublin. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Conduct Unbecoming: A Memoir
Gill & Macmillan
Des O’Malley can be considered a very significant and influential figure in modern Irish politics. He was a young minister for justice at a time of turmoil in the early 1970s, and an ally of Jack Lynch and great foe of Charles Haughey while Fianna Fáil tore itself apart in the 1970s and 1980s, which took courage. In founding the Progressive Democrats (PDs), he was instrumental in bringing an end to single-party government and setting the tone for the politics and ideology of the 1990s and 2000s that affected this State profoundly.
His career, which included boldness, originality and a distaste for tolerance of dishonesty and the parish pump mentality, deserves a revealing, comprehensive and nuanced book, but such an account is not remotely on offer here.
The introduction to this memoir contains an apology to O’Malley’s brother and son who wanted him to write an “academic” book: “I failed them. Sorry.” O’Malley should extend his apology to anyone who has to endure what is an infuriatingly bad and poorly-written book, not because of its lack of academic prowess, which is hardly a requirement of political memoirs, but because it is shallow, sloppy, repetitive, rambling, ridiculously selective, frequently contradictory and, in his own words, consists of “mere impressions”. I do not know why O’Malley bothered.
Elevated to ministerial office in May 1970 at the time of the Arms Crisis, his main focus in covering that period is to defend taoiseach Jack Lynch, who he claims was able to resist his opponents in FF “with such relative ease”, a bizarre assertion given that the crisis which engulfed the party was not just about the behaviour of renegade ministers but also a weak taoiseach.
His version of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is that the entire blame lies with the Provisional IRA – “a peace process would not have been necessary but for the Provos”– and that “Sinn Féin has been the big loser from the Peace Process”, another odd conclusion, and at this stage, he is only on page 14 of the book.
Rambling reflections about his upbringing in Limerick include the declaration “there was far less class distinction in Limerick than in Dublin. The atmosphere was different.” In the next paragraph we are told “there was real poverty in Limerick”.
At the outset, all sorts of assertions are made without evidence or elaboration and this approach is maintained throughout the book, underlining the lack of coherence or focus. He suggests “we need to rethink how politics works in Ireland” but then immediately contradicts himself by declaring “it may be the present system, imperfect as it is, actually works better than the alternatives”.
In relation to the specifics of his political career, he gives little attention to what was going on inside FF during the Arms Crisis in favour of his apologia for Lynch, and in dismissing criticism of Lynch’s lethargy, makes the erroneous assertion that “the fact of the matter is that the truth prevailed”. The truth of what happened during the Arms Crisis has not prevailed because it has not been fully revealed, and he contradicts himself by acknowledging “crucial questions about the arms crisis were never answered”.
If Lynch had “good control” of the government during this period why were Kevin Boland and Neil Blaney “the loudest voices” at cabinet? The fact that a jury acquitted Haughey after his arms trial is “by the way”, a revealing assertion by a former minister for justice, as are his comments about the Irish people’s “gullibility to flag wavers and tribal instincts”.
Nation’s gratitudeHe goes in to more detail about the revelation in 2001 that alterations had been made to the witness statement of head of military intelligence Col Michael Hefferon in 1970, but insists, “nothing significant was deleted” which is, at the very least, debatable. He also defends Peter Berry, the secretary of the department of justice at that time, and suggests he is “deserving of a nation’s gratitude”, but when Berry sought to be compensated for enforced early retirement, O’Malley wrote to him to dispute the idea that there was a “moral obligation” on the government to compensate him, a letter not quoted in this book.
Other rambles through the 1970s include the observation that FF’s 1977 general election manifesto was “not considered reckless” at the time, which is inaccurate. Garret FitzGerald predicted that FF’s “manifesto crisis” would emerge in 18 months and he was correct.
There are some interesting memories of the heaves against Haughey in the early 1980s, reminders of just how despicable Haughey was in abusing power, and the fear, loathing and devotion the party divisions inspired, including phone-line sabotage and Haughey’s promise of financial inducements for those who voted for him: “I know of a couple of instances where TDs who voted the ‘right’ way had debts paid off”. Another TD was threatened he would lose 60 per cent of his business. O’Malley stayed in government initially to prevent Haughey getting “a totally free hand”, before resigning in October 1982.
Still a member of FF, he chose to make a stand on contraception when legislation liberalising access to it was being voted on in the Dáil in 1985 with his now famous “I stand by the Republic” speech. But he only stood by it rhetorically; after the speech, he abstained from voting, partly “out of deference to some of my colleagues”.
Thrown out of FF, he does not elaborate on the invitation to join Fine Gael “with the prospect of ministerial appointment”, nor do we get any insight into the “heated moments” during the gestation period for the PDs. Michael McDowell drew up the blueprint for the new party, Mary Harney was “the driving force” and O’Malley “the nominal lead”. He makes much of his reluctance to be in the limelight as leader, and he expresses regret that he did not make Harney deputy leader.
But much more importantly, what did the PDs actually stand for? The standard response, reiterated here, was that it was “socially liberal and economically responsible”, with the PDs in “the classic European Liberal tradition”. What did that mean to O’Malley? In offering some superficial meanderings, he again ties himself in knots; less state involvement in the economy was a chief priority, and “there was no ideological zeal underpinning” that desire, but in the very same paragraph he maintains there is no point in standing for election “except to promote a certain ideology”.
Taxation problemMany of the criticisms he makes of current politics (“government continues to have contempt for the Dáil”) and the Constitution (he thought it flawed “and my assessment still holds in the second decade of the new century”) are testament to the limits of PD influence, but in his first leader’s address in 1986 he maintained “the taxation problem is the key to tackling all the other major problems”.
In that, he was proven wrong; the obsession with tax cuts and less State regulation did not serve this State or its economy well in the long run; indeed, quite the opposite.
O’Malley also maintains the PDs did not push certain issues when in government as, even though they were important issues, they “were not always ones on which we could realistically fight an election”. So much for principle. Given his poisonous relationship with Haughey it is hardly surprising that “in truth, none of us wanted to go into government with FF”. Yet they did, and we should get more of the how and the why; unfortunately this book offers no journey into the interior, just selective snippets; Pádraig Flynn treated Harney “like dirt”; as taoisigh, Lynch, Haughey, Liam Cosgrave and FitzGerald were “all head and shoulders above Albert Reynolds, politically and intellectually . . . I don’t think he was up to being taoiseach”.
Perhaps the only interesting part of the latter stage of the book is his overview of the events that led to the Beef Tribunal; it offers more coherence and detail on an episode for which he deserves credit for persistence in attempting to get to the bottom of a grave export insurance scandal and “the very worst type of crony capitalism”.
In rejecting O’Malley’s evidence during the tribunal, Reynolds, he insists, made “his gratuitous allegation of perjury on the strength of a spin doctor’s notion that he himself could not understand”, one of the better lines in a book that has precious few of them. There are further, scattergun reflections that are no better than the earlier fare and far too simplistic. In relation to foreign policy, he concludes: “In Ireland being neutral seems to mean being anti-American”. Is this the best a former chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs can manage? His parting shot is that “in the post 2011 period it became clear that the country needed a party with the basic principles of the PDs”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.