Great survivor who stumbled before last fence

 

Denis Coghlan, Chief Political Correspondent,looks at Bobby Molloy's 37-year Dáil career.

By the time Mr Justice Philip O'Sullivan stopped speaking in the High Court yesterday, the early morning resignation of Bobby Molloy had been placed in a damning context.

Gone was the aura of a principled decision by a Minister of State in the Progressive Democrats. Instead, we were left with the picture of a man who had reluctantly retired before the tide of events swept him away. For Mr Molloy had been economical with the truth and had been found out.

It was a sad end to a 37-year-long political career that saw the Galway West TD serve in six governments, three times as a senior minister. The human tragedy involved was recognised by both Government and opposition spokesmen.

But the nature of politics drove them to assess the real and potential damage to the Government and move to the next business. By midday, the focus had shifted to John O'Donoghue and the Department of Justice. Mr Molloy, no longer a Dáil contender, was yesterday's man.

The former Minister of State is no stranger to controversy. He has been involved in more party infighting than others dream on. He has seen ministers and party leaders come and go as fortunes grew and tumbled. But, through it all, he has been the quintessential constituency politician, oiling the parish pump and providing a direct interface between the voters of Galway West and officialdom.

Making such representations in the Naughton case, he grossly overstepped the mark. And he paid in blood when he challenged the judge's version of events.

Mr Molloy is as tough as nails and has a healthy suspicion of the media. The early promise of his political career, when he became a senior minister at the age of 34, was not realised. Iron entered his soul. He came to be seen as a solid, somewhat dour, rather than a brilliant, performer.

With a background in student politics at University College Galway, he was returned to the Dáil for Galway West in 1965 and, for 25 years, was elected on the first count. Slippage set in in 1992. By 1997, he took the last remaining seat. Under pressure from Mary Harney and the party in recent months, he agreed to stand for one last time. It was not to be.

A strong supporter of former Taoiseach Jack Lynch, Mr Molloy became parliamentary secretary at the Department of Education in 1969. After the Arms Trial crisis, the vacancy at local government was filled by the Galway man.

As opposition spokesman for the environment in 1975, he blundered badly when he accused the then minister, Jimmy Tully, of corruption. The allegation had to be withdrawn and Mr Molloy was moved to the backbenches. When Mr Lynch returned to government with an overall majority in 1977, Mr Molloy was given the ministry of defence.

In the leadership race of 1979, he supported George Colley, an action that caused him to be excluded from Cabinet by Charlie Haughey.

The following seven years were unhappy times. Tension between the Haughey and Colley/O'Malley faction and a succession of leadership "heaves" convulsed Fianna Fáil. Mr Molloy was out of favour in Dublin. But he concentrated on local politics.

Mr Molloy understood political theatre and used triumphant post-election bonfires as a trademark in Galway West. That was why his decision to join the newly formed Progressive Democrats in 1986 came as such a blow to Fianna Fáil. They had not allowed for his friendship with Des O'Malley. And Mr Molloy, as his friends will tell you, is loyal. Loyal, cautious and, like many Fianna Fáil politicians, discreetly religious.

Tough and pragmatic, he was a superb constituency organiser. He was very generous with his time in helping to build the party and to assist individual colleagues.

He and Pat Cox were chosen by the Progressive Democrats to negotiate the terms of the first coalition government with Fianna Fáil in 1989 and he drove a hard bargain. With only six TDs, the party extracted two senior and one junior government position as the price of a deal with Charlie Haughey. Mr Molloy got one of the plum jobs and became Minister for Energy.

In 1997 he again led the Progressive Democrats negotiating team and, with four seats, secured one senior and two junior ministries. As Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, he enjoyed the bonus of a non-voting position in Cabinet. Deregulation of the taxi business was his main contribution.

In 37 years of public life, Mr Molloy once confessed that the hardest decision was to leave Fianna Fáil. That may still hold true, for yesterday's resignation - while traumatic - may yet be regarded by him with something approaching relief. Why should he stay in politics? After all, isn't his friend Des leaving too?