Des O’Malley: ‘I didn’t have a thick enough skin’

After more than 10 years of writing, former Progressive Democrats leader Des O’Malley has published his autobiography. Few escape the ‘unpleasantness’ it dredges up, from the ‘self-indulgent’ Charlie McCreevy and ‘impetuous’ Michael McDowell to the ‘pointless’ Seanad – and even O’Malley himself

 

‘I’m 75½ now, going on 76,” he says with a kind of amused gurgle, followed by a hacking cough. His health is fragile enough, compounded by a bad cold, although he would prefer not to make “a public thing of it”. “You get used to things,” he wheezes.

Desmond O’Malley has had to get used to things not required of most of us.

As minister for justice at the height of the Troubles he got used to sleeping with a gun under his pillow. While he pursued State business his wife, Pat, and four children were under Garda protection in Limerick, where Provo protesters “would throw red paint and, on occasion, a coffin into the front garden”. The Co Tyrone pub run by Pat’s family was blown up twice.

At one stage the IRA tried to kill him, he says. On Garda advice he never stayed longer than a week at the same Dublin address, and one of those was a friend’s flat on Waterloo Road – until a rifle and telescopic sight were discovered in a flat directly across from them. The flat had been rented a few weeks previously under a false name by someone who “appeared to have been from the North”.

If these seem like tales from a distant past, O’Malley’s judgments plant them squarely in the present. He says a few times that he wants to leave the present alone, but he makes the link time and again. He can’t help it.

Among several questions left unanswered, for example, about the Arms Crisis – triggered by a 1970 plot to smuggle arms into the Republic for use in the North – one in particular resonates: “Did some politicians encourage the establishment of the Provisional IRA?”

 

Loathing for Sinn Féin

From there it’s a short hop to his loathing of present-day Sinn Féin. If the Seanad is a watchdog, as claimed during last year’s referendum, how did it acquit itself through the Haughey years? When did the bank rot begin? How has the legal system evolved that the big legal firms now use what he describes as the same remuneration system as prostitutes?

 

Des O’Malley’s long career in high office began on May 4th, 1970, the day he was summoned out of the bath by Jack Lynch and invited to become minister for justice. He was 31, had been a TD for just two years, and was “spectacularly inexperienced for the job”, brash and, some would suggest (carefully), arrogant.

Having said yes, he listened slack-jawed as Lynch dropped the bombshell that he was about to sack Charles Haughey and Niall Blaney. The young country solicitor had unwittingly stepped into the ground zero of the Arms Crisis. “Jazes, I was kind of knocked for six, I can tell you. They were big beasts.”

The “endless reforms” in which he had a profound interest were shunted to one side, sacrificed almost entirely for security matters. “I felt like a fireman trying to put out fires rather than being constructive”

Did it occur to him to say no thank you? “It didn’t. The way it was put to me, I felt I couldn’t. Lynch had a very serious difficulty in justice and seemed to want me in particular to go in there. I remember one of the phrases he used: ‘You’re out of school’ – he meant law school – ‘a lot shorter than I am, you’re able to handle this kind of stuff well, because you’re less than 10 years qualified.’ The way it was put to me, I never thought of not taking it.”

Had the arms-smuggling plot succeeded, it could have led to a civil war, he believes. Lynch took control with the seismic sacking of Haughey and Blaney, two powerful cabinet ministers, for complicity, triggering the resignation in solidarity of a third, Kevin Boland (“a bag of noise”). Haughey and Blaney were among those later charged and acquitted. O’Malley remains incredulous at the acquittals, believing them to be “totally illogical”.

Getting his version on the record was the motivation for this memoir – begun more than a decade ago – although he took no joy in the writing of it, he says now.

Haughey’s shade permeates the work, the late taoiseach a “malignant force” whose name often crops up near the word “sinister”. “I came from a different sort of period in a sense . . . The great dividing point is the beginning of December 1979,” he says, referring to the month when Haughey won the Fianna Fáil leadership. “All the rules and conventions that existed prior to that changed overnight.”

That led into the 1987-98 period, when Haughey finally had full rein, “the only time when he didn’t have people at the government table willing to stand up to him. The outcome was the most corrupt government in the history of the State.”

The story is bookended with the Arms Crisis (Haughey and Blaney) and the beef tribunal (Haughey, Albert Reynolds, Ray Burke and Liam Lawlor), with the no less trivial matters of phone-tapping (Haughey), O’Malley’s stirring “I stand by the Republic” speech, his risible expulsion from Fianna Fáil (Haughey) for “conduct unbecoming”, and the founding of a new political party, eventually leading to the “unthinkable”coalition with Haughey.

It culminates in Michael McDowell’s resignation as party leader, live on television, as his party candidates were still fighting for their seats at the 2007 general election count – “I was almost sick when I heard him announce his resignation,” O’Malley says. “I just couldn’t believe what he did. I knew the party was finished as I watched.”

Dredging up such events for the book left him feeling a bit sick. It reminded him of very unpleasant times. “Unpleasantness with a capital U,” he says with the characteristic harrumph of wry amusement.

A brief but surprising feature, for those who think of O’Malley as the gruff, abrasive personality he doubtless was and can be, is the sense of hurt that remains from “the unrelenting and vicious” hostility emanating from the press and some colleagues during his time as minister for justice.

He admits he never bothered to cultivate people, and it’s hard not to laugh at the photograph in the book of a two- or three-year-old Desmond on a tricycle, looking as grim then as he ever looked 30 years later during his battles with the subversives.

But the criticism then, “God . . . it was bitter,” he says. “It does hurt at the time. You recoil a bit. You’re a bit like a snail: you go back into your shell . . . Perhaps part of my problem is that I didn’t have a thick enough skin. And 10 years later they were giving out hell about ministers for justice, because they weren’t doing enough about the IRA. But every time I lifted my finger to do anything about them, they were screaming and roaring at me. Because I had to stand my ground against them I acquired a reputation that I haven’t lost as far as they’re concerned.”

Part of the problem, as O’Malley sees it, is that “nobody on what I might call the State side, or the nondefendant side, has really written about the Arms Crisis at all . . . We have had to endure the ‘sneaking regarder’ version of events, whereby every waver of a green flag is sanctified and those who tried to do something as boring as maintaining the integrity and stability of the State and the rule of law are vilified.”

Journalists tend to rely on material already in print for their own work, believing it to be correct, he says, so “there is no attempt to lay down a corrective view”. Also, he was constantly reminded that he is the last man standing with first-hand knowledge.

There is no mellowing towards those who wobbled – or worse – in their support for Lynch (whom he reveres) as the State battled for survival in a haze of national ambivalence. Those who attempted to arm subversives were guilty of “treason”. He accuses Haughey, Blaney and Boland of naked opportunism, seeing them as men who “clearly regarded the outbreak of the northern ‘troubles’ as a heaven-sent opportunity to get rid of Lynch”.

 

Looming ‘spectre’

O’Malley is implacable in his loathing of the IRA and Sinn Féin, then and now. Peter Berry, the secretary of the department of justice in O’Malley’s time, “was lucky that he never lived to see the official appeasement of terrorism and terrorists”. What “really frightens” O’Malley now, he says, is the spectre of a Sinn Féin party on the rise, as the Civil War parties in the Dáil decline. “I detest what I see – I know what they have done.”

 

He does not believe Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to be genuine democrats. “They put up as the face of the party an innocent, a ‘lovely girl’,” he says. Mary Lou McDonald “is supposed to be an antidote to the appearance and the record of Adams and co. Of course she’s an able lady in her own right, but I can see why they push her so hard.”

Then the photographer arrives, and O’Malley sits awkwardly on the sofa as directed, in his bright, unshowy south Dublin city apartment, and has to be reminded a few times to hold up his book. Des O’Malley is no marketing man. He never was.

 

NOWHERE TO HIDE: DES O’MALLEY ON . . .


The Seanad
“I don’t see the point of it. It’s too small a country. We don’t need it.” The “most culpable of all faults of the present government is how it ran no campaign whatever” for the referendum. “It was defeated by 1 per cent – 1 per cent,” he repeats, incredulously – because the field was abandoned to “all sorts of vested interests and Senators and ex-attorney generals and lawyers”.

The legal profession
They see themselves as immune to reform and have made justice unavailable to all but the megarich, quangos and the State. The leading firms’ system of charging – in advance, by the hour – is the same one used “in calculating remuneration for a profession even older than the law”.

The banks
When the State was borrowing funds to bail out the AIB-owned ICI insurance company – and at a time when ICI’s deficit was estimated at £240 million – O’Malley, as minister for industry and commerce, tried to oppose an application from AIB to set up a life-assurance company. O’Malley says that AIB’s then chairman, Peter Sutherland, threatened to sue him as minister, insisting that the bank had no legal or moral responsibility for ICI, and took grave exception to suggestions that it might be forced to pay a levy. Meanwhile, writes O’Malley, “the bank racked up growing profits, and dividends for shareholders increased. And so . . . Allied Irish Banks continued without restraint until it carried the bank and the country to disaster in 2008.”

The Dáil
It became “totally subservient” to the executive in the Haughey era - “and even today, more than 20 years later, the Government continues to have contempt for the Dail . . . It should be the most powerful of the three pillars of the Constitution” – Dáil, government and judiciary – “because it’s directly elected, but it’s not. Now the other two have filled the vacuum and are much more powerful than the theory of the Constitution ever indicated that they should be.”

The Taoiseach
The theory of collective government responsibility – where cabinets were a meeting of equals and the taoiseach was “more of a co-ordinator than a doer” – has been replaced by the “deification” of the taoiseach, a trend that began with Haughey. Enda Kenny is “less domineering, shall we say, though a few of his, eh . . .” – amused gurgle – “expeditions into government management recently weren’t totally successful.”

The Department of the Taoiseach
In Lynch’s day there was just the taoiseach’s office and the secretariat to the government. “The secretary to the government’s principal function was to take the minutes of government meetings and co-ordinate the memoranda of various departments. He had no input into policy. Now there’s not just a whole department and a secretary-general [with] input into policy, but he has a whole rake of minions below him to do the same thing.”

The Ceann Comhairle
“Compare the relatively powerful position of a speaker in other parliaments to here. In the US House of Representatives he’s a very powerful man. . . It’s taken for granted now that Dáil business should be guillotined every day of the week, and the media never utters a squeak about it. . . Unfortunately the Ceann Comhairle seems to feel he’s bound by all these things. . . In fairness to the present man, he has made a genuine effort to assert his position. ”

Local government
“We had a mandate to be impotent,” he says about his years on Limerick Corporation, in the 1970s. “It’s still the same: unelected officials, and power in the hands of one person. City managers have changed their name; they’re now chief executives, which I thought very amusing. But it doesn’t make the slightest difference.” He believes his greatest political failure was not working harder to win arguments with local-government officials about urban housebuilding policies that resulted in places like Moyross.

Political clinics
He never had “megaclinics” like other TDs; he would have found it soul-destroying. Unlike, say, Willie O’Dea, spotted out canvassing barely 12 hours after re-election in the 1980s. “The unfortunate man seemed to have nothing better to do and no other interests.”

Charlie McCreevy
“A man with great ability. He would come up with things from time to time that are very sensible and useful and was a man who used great energy to implement things, not all of them correct. But he was impetuous.” McCreevy’s “self-indulgent” solo move against Haughey, even though he knew a challenge was under way, made O’Malley feel “physically sick . . . I think he wanted to be in the forefront of things, perhaps.” He notes that McCreevy never apologised for an action that O’Malley believes left Haughey as leader for several more years.

Michael McDowell
McDowell, lauded as “one of the outstanding parliamentarians”, and one who made “an enormous contribution” to the Progressive Democrats, doesn’t escape entirely, either. He wouldn’t have O’Malley’s vote as leader of a new party. “I think he would be an important and valuable part of any new party . . . but I don’t think he’s suitable for leadership. He’s too impetuous.” O’Malley admits he himself was probably not the best choice as party leader. “I didn’t really have the personality for the role, and I didn’t enjoy the limelight. There was a lot of nonsense, especially the emphasis on personal matters.”

 

A new political party
There is still “very much an opening for one with a kind of economic common-sense policy”. McDowell’s proposal for a middle-Ireland party is PDs mark II, he says, “though it’s nearly 30 years later, and things are different. One of the reasons the PDs were started was to try and stave off the advent of the IMF, which was very imminent in 1985 . . . . We have different problems now that that has happened with the troika. One of the barriers to setting up a new party is money, a problem we never had. That’s a crippling impediment. The present rules are anti-democratic.”

Political rebels
As one who spoke against the grain, early and often, O’Malley has little time for the Dáil voices who are “agin’ everything. If you’re only ever shouting about what is unpopular you’re just a useless populist. People should be able to distinguish between the two.”

Conduct Unbecoming: A Memoir, by Desmond O’Malley, is published by Gill & Macmillan

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