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O’Malley’s influence on Fianna Fáil extended beyond his expulsion

One-time party loyalist and then PD leader obliged FF to shelve ‘core value’: no coalition

Des O'Malley did not just found a new party called the Progressive Democrats. He forced Charles Haughey to abandon Fianna Fail's core value of refusing to enter coalition. After that, politics was never the same.

The irony of it all was that O’Malley’s political life had been dominated by a deep distrust of Haughey whom he regarded as a corrupting influence on political life and even a threat to the Republic’s democratic standards.

Their antipathy went back to the arms crisis of 1970 when O'Malley was Fianna Fáil chief whip when the then taoiseach Jack Lynch fired Haughey and Neil Blaney for their involvement in a plot to import arms to give to the Provisional IRA.

O’Malley was fiercely loyal to Lynch and backed him to the hilt so he was shocked to the core when Fianna Fáil elected Haughey as leader in 1979. His distrust of the new leader led him to participate in the three unsuccessful heaves to remove Haughey in 1982-83.

After the failure of the third heave O'Malley was so marginalised in Fianna Fáil that Fine Gael TD John Kelly described him as being reduced to "sleeping under political bridges".

Electrifying speech

The final parting of the ways came when O’Malley refused to vote with parliamentary colleagues against a Bill to liberalise the family planning laws introduced by Labour’s Barry Desmond in February, 1985. It was not just his refusal to toe the line in the vote which left his fellow party TDs squirming, but that he delivered an electrifying speech to the Dáil which undermined their case.

Defending the concept of a pluralist State O'Malley stressed the effect a defeat for the Bill would have on opinion in Northern Ireland. And he denounced the partitionist mentality of those who opposed the Fine Gael-Labour government's legislation.

“The politics of this would be very easy. The politics would be, to be one of the lads, the safest way in Ireland. But I do not believe that the interests of this State, or our Constitution and of this Republic would be served by putting politics before conscience in regard to this. There is a choice of a kind that can only be answered by saying that I stand by the Republic and accordingly, I will not oppose this Bill,” O’Malley told the Dáil.

The use of the old Civil War catchphrase, “I stand by the Republic”, rubbed salt into the wounds as far as many of his Fianna Fáil colleagues were concerned. But the speech was hailed by TDs of all parties as one of the best heard in the Dáil chamber in their lifetimes.

Following that he was expelled from Fianna Fáil and with some reluctance went on to found the Progressive Democrats in December of 1985 along with fellow dissident Fianna Fáil TD Mary Harney and former Fine Gael activist Michael McDowell.

The new party made an immediate impact in the 1987 general election, winning 14 seats and helping to ensure that Haughey did not get the overall majority he craved. Haughey called a snap election in May 1989 believing that he could finally get that elusive majority, but he was denied once more.

The PDs suffered a massive reverse in that election, being reduced to six seats but with Fianna Fáil winning 77 it began to dawn on people that a coalition between the two parties would deliver a government.

PD demands

At first there was resistance in both parties to the notion but Haughey quickly came to realise that it was his only route to retaining power. Although most of his parliamentary party was adamantly opposed to coalition Haughey forced them to swallow it.

What made it even worse was that the PDs demanded, and got, two cabinet positions. O'Malley and Bobby Molloy were appointed as senior ministers while Mary Harney became a minister of state.

There was fury in Fianna Fáil but the party's TDs swallowed their pride and lived with the consequences. It did, however, undermine the confidence of Haughey's strongest supporters in his leadership and paved the way for Albert Reynolds to succeed him in 1992.

Despite their distrust of each other O’Malley and Haughey worked well in coalition. It was only when Haughey was forced to resign and Reynolds took over that it fell apart. In subsequent years the PDs entered three more coalition governments with Fianna Fáil.

The unforeseen consequence of Fianna Fáil's abandonment of its core value was that it was able to retain an almost unbroken grip on power until 2011 through a series of coalitions with the PDs, Labour and the Greens.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times

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