Death of Progressive Democrats founding member Bobby Molloy

Former Galway West TD and Fianna Fáil minister dies aged 80

Bobby Molloy with his wife Phyllis at NUI Galway watches votes being counted for Galway West in the 2016 general election. He joined the celebrations as his former Progressive Democrats colleague Noel Grealish was re-elected. Video: Joe O'Shaughnessy

 

Bobby Molloy, who has died aged 80, experienced more ups and downs in politics than probably any other politician of his generation.

His political career spanning 37 years once seemed as if it could lead to the highest prize but was dogged by controversy and ended in his resignation as Minister of State in April 2002.

In between there were triumphs, miscalculations, courageous decisions, periods out in the cold and revival of fortunes. During all the twists and turns in and out of government, he looked after his Galway West constituency with all the skills of the parish pump politician. He was repaid with an unbroken run of 10 successful general election contests, in many of which he topped the poll.

His defection to the Progressive Democrats in 1986 was even more traumatic for Fianna Fáil than that of the party founder, Des O’Malley.

For Mr Molloy, who had entered politics under Sean Lemass, it was the most difficult decision of his life. But it had the later unlikely consequence of him serving in cabinet under Charles Haughey who had once dropped him from government without bothering to tell him personally.

‘Blue-eyed blonde’

The bruising endured through a long political career left their mark as Mr Molloy’s earlier open and cheerful disposition changed to a more dour and guarded attitude to fellow politicians as well as the media. The eager, curly-haired young politician who was once nicknamed “Íosagáin” by journalist John Healy and described as “a blue-eyed blonde from the West” by gossip columnists took on a sterner demeanour as the hard knocks of politics took their toll.

Robert Molloy was born in Galway on July 6th, 1936. His father, Michael Edward Molloy, who ran a successful wholesale drapery business in the city, was from Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. His mother, Rita Stanley, came from Clifden, Co Galway.

After attending secondary school at the Jesuit-run St Ignatius College, he graduated in commerce at University College, Galway, where he was active in student politics. He was also a keen participant in sports and played rugby as well as Gaelic football and hurling. He made his mark especially in swimming and represented Connacht also in athletics and rowing.

After working for several years in printing, the clothing industry and the family drapery firm, he was elected to the Dáil for Galway West in the 1965 general election, succeeding to the seat held by the Fianna Fáil minister, Gerald Bartley. In the leadership contest which followed the resignation of Mr Lemass in 1966, Mr Molloy supported George Colley against Jack Lynch.

Mr Lynch, as taoiseach, promoted Mr Molloy, following the 1969 election, to parliamentary secretary to the minister for education with responsibility for sport. But a year later, as part of the fall-out from the arms crisis and the resignation of Kevin Boland, Mr Molloy was appointed minister for local government at the age of 33. He worked hard in providing new public authority housing.

In 1972, he married Phyllis Barry, a Montessori teacher from Foxrock, Co Dublin, whose father was a cousin of the executed patriot, Kevin Barry. They met while campaigning in a mid-Cork byelection. They had four children, Sinead, Sorcha, Donnacha and Dara.

Hostility

In opposition from 1973, Mr Molloy was the front bench spokesman marking his successor as minister for local government, Jim Tully of Labour, who was arousing much Fianna Fáil hostility in his redrawing of constituencies known as the “Tullymander”.

Mr Molloy and a Fianna Fáil colleague, Brendan Crinion, using Dáil privilege, accused Mr Tully of having an improper commercial relationship with a builder in Co Meath. Although both men withdrew the charge following Mr Tully’s strong denial, Mr Molloy was to pay dearly. He was forced to resign his front bench position and was later condemned by a judicial tribunal and censured by the Dáil for abuse of privilege.

When Fianna Fáil swept back into power in 1977, Mr Molloy was regarded as lucky to be re-appointed to cabinet but it was to the low-profile post of minister for defence. While he worked conscientiously and opened up the Defence Forces to women, it was not an encouraging pointer for his future but worse was to come when Jack Lynch resigned suddenly in December 1979 and Charles Haughey sought Mr Molloy’s support in the leadership contest. The latter made it clear he was supporting George Colley. Loyalty was all-important for him.

Mr Molloy was subsequently dropped from Mr Haughey’s cabinet but he later told The Irish Timess journalist Stephen Collins that he was not afforded the courtesy of being told of his demotion, went of his own accord to the backbenches anticipating the worst and dutifully voted for the new leader as taoiseach.

Not surprisingly he was involved in the subsequent “heaves” against the leadership over 1982-83.Despite his criticism of Mr Haughey, the latter appointed him to the front bench when Fianna Fáil lost power in 1982.

As spokesman for the environment, he showed his populist streak when he attacked An Taisce as representing the “upper middle class” and made jibes at the “blue rinse brigade” Mr Molloy’s defection to the Progressive Democrats in January 1986 soon after their formation was sensational. Mr Haughey had even sent him as an emissary to Pearse Wyse to argue the Cork TD out of joining the new party.

Difficult decision

Several days later, Mr Molloy announced he was joining. He described it as “the most difficult decision” of his life.

He defended his decision saying that the main reason was that Fianna Fáil was no longer a party of democratic principles and that it had become exclusively dominated by its leader Charles Haughey.

Addressing a PD rally of an estimated 20,000 supporters in his native Salthill, Mr Molloy said that there was “a great despondency throughout the land and it is in search of hope for the future.” “This is the start of the great march forward to save our nation because we are indeed in crisis.”

In the election the following year, Mr Molloy again topped the poll showing that he did not need Fianna Fáil to hold his seat. He even did better in the snap election called in 1989 but failed on the same day to win a European election contest. The PDs were reduced from 14 to six seats and the party and Mr Molloy seemed doomed to irrelevance.

As it happened, Fianna Fáil were six seats short of an overall majority and Mr Haughey abandoned the “core value” of Fianna Fáil serving only in single party government and opened negotiations with the PDs for a coalition. Mr Molloy and newly elected MEP for Munster, Pat Cox, represented the PDs in the long-drawn out negotiations to put together a coalition. When it was all over, he was back in cabinet as minister for energy under the taoiseach who had humiliated him 10 years earlier.

He and Mr O’Malley had a wary working relationship with their former Fianna Fáil colleagues over the next three years. But resentment against their presence in Cabinet and what was seen as undue influence over Mr Haughey reached a peak when they made it clear they would not serve in a cabinet with Brian Lenihan following his gaffe during the 1990 presidential campaign over alleged phone calls to president Patrick Hillery back in 1982.

It was Mr Haughey’s turn to be the victim of PD rectitude in January 1992 when Sean Doherty compromised him over the phone tapping of journalists also dating back to 1982. But there was to be little time left for the coalition under his successor, Albert Reynolds, who precipitated an election six months later when he accused Mr O’Malley of giving “dishonest” evidence to the Beef Tribunal. Mr Molloy angrily denounced Mr Reynolds for his “outrageous” allegation. He also criticised him for “lack of generosity” in recent negotiations with the Unionists in North-South talks in which Mr Molloy represented the PDS.

Back in opposition in 1992-97, Mr Molloy ran again in 1994 for a seat in the European Parliament but his 1989 vote was down by 50 per cent.

In 1997 when Fianna Fáil failed to win an overall majority in the June election, Mr Molloy was again called on to represent the PDs in the negotiations for a new coalition. This time the PDs had a weaker hand with Dail seats reduced to four. There was only one place in Cabinet for the party and this went to then tánaiste Mary Harney. Mr Molloy, as minister of state to the government, was entitled to sit in cabinet but not to vote.

‘Nothing sinister’

He was also appointed a junior minister for the environment. His main task was to bring about the de-regulation of Dublin taxis.

As the coalition drew to a close in 2002, there were increasing rumours that he would not run again in Galway West but under pressure from Harney, he agreed to run in what would be his 11th general election since 1965.

This was not to be. Following criticism of him by a judge trying a rape case for making representations on behalf of the accused’s sister, Mr Molloy announced he was resigning his ministerial post and leaving politics. He told the Dáil there had been “nothing sinister or dishonest” in his action in helping the accused’s sister pass on a letter to the judge.

It was a “human error of judgment” on his part that might have given the public the impression that he “had secretly tried to influence a judge”. His motives were “free from any conspiracy, bad faith or underhand motives.” He had resigned “an office I was honoured to hold, precisely because I know that by failing to do so, I would have damaged public confidence in all that I hold dear – public confidence in decent standards in the public life, in the rule of law, in impartial justice and in the separation of powers.”

There was some consolation for Mr Molloy that in the election several weeks later, the PDs, against all the odds, held on to his seat in Galway West.

He had served as Mayor of Galway in 1968-69.

He is survived by his wife, Phyllis; daughters, Sorcha and Sinead, and sons, Donnacha and Dara.