Des O’Malley obituary: Key political player thought by some as ‘best taoiseach Ireland never had’

Limerick politician split from Fianna Fáil to form influential Progressive Democrats

Des O’Malley on the plinth at Leinster House before his retirement from politics. Photograph: Alan Betson/ The Irish Times

Des O’Malley on the plinth at Leinster House before his retirement from politics. Photograph: Alan Betson/ The Irish Times

 

Born: February 2nd, 1939
Died: July 21st, 2021

Desmond (Des or Dessie) O’Malley, who was sometimes called “the best taoiseach the country never had’’, has died, aged 82.

O’Malley once seemed destined to carry on the family legal practice in Limerick as a solicitor but ended up becoming one of the most significant figures in Irish politics during a career which took extraordinary turns. Following his expulsion from Fianna Fáil for “conduct unbecoming’’, he founded the Progressive Democrats and then entered a coalition with Fianna Fáil, led by his bitter antagonist Charles Haughey. O’Malley would later ensure Haughey’s final departure from the political scene following new revelations about telephone tapping 10 years earlier.

Desmond O’Malley with life-long political adversary Charles Haughey at the launch of the Fianna Fáil / Progressive Democrat programme in 1991. Photograph: Peter Thursfield
Desmond O’Malley with life-long political adversary Charles Haughey at the launch of the Fianna Fáil / Progressive Democrat programme in 1991. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

As an energetic minister for industry and commerce over several terms, O’Malley left his mark on Irish business life which he tried to modernise and free from state bureaucracy.

But it was his first ministerial portfolio, in justice in 1970-73, at a time of crisis because of the Northern Ireland situation and deep divisions inside Fianna Fáil which first stamped his authority on public life as he cracked down on the IRA, quelled civil disturbance and took on the powerful legal profession.

The abrasiveness and often surly demeanour of that difficult period gradually mellowed over the years to that of elder statesman who was still ready to fire salvoes if necessary at what he saw as abuses in the handling of the beef industry and corruption in public life, especially if he could link it to erstwhile colleagues in Fianna Fáil.

Desmond O’Malley was born in Limerick in February 1939 where his father, also Desmond, had a solicitor’s practice. His mother, Una, had endured a personal tragedy when her father, Denis O’Donovan, was shot dead by British auxiliaries during a raid on his hotel in Castleconnell outside the city during the War of Independence.

Limerick middle classes

Like most of the sons of the Limerick middle classes, Desmond was educated at Crescent College run by the Jesuits. He played rugby and was hooker on the team which lost a Munster senior cup final.

At UCD in the late 1950s he studied law and took an active part in college debates and student politics as a member of the Kevin Barry Fianna Fáil cumann. He read the British left-wing political weekly, the New Statesman, and was recalled by a contemporary, Maeve Binchy, as being “terrier-like’’, a description he rejected in an interview with her. It was at UCD that he met his future wife, Pat McAleer, from Omagh.

In 1962, he qualified as a solicitor and worked in the family firm, also taking an interest in amateur dramatics and helping to run the Limerick greyhound company. During this period, his uncle, Donogh O’Malley, was a rising star in the Seán Lemass cabinet as a minister for health and then for education.

When Donogh died suddenly in 1968, his nephew was prevailed on to stand in the byelection after he had been told by Hilda O’Malley, the widow, that she did not want to be a candidate.

Relations with Hilda were to become soured, however, after he won the byelection and she changed her mind and asked him to stand down in her favour in the general election the following year. He refused and following his re-election was appointed by the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, as his parliamentary secretary.

A strong and lasting bond was to be forged between the two men. Ten months later, in the midst of what came to be called the “Arms Crisis’’, O’Malley was thrust into the hot seat of minister for justice following the forced resignation of Micheál Ó Moráin and the sacking of two other ministers, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney.

Subversives

At 31, O’Malley was the youngest minister since Kevin O’Higgins and he was to face one of the most fraught periods in the State’s history as violence escalated in Northern Ireland and spilled over into the Republic. The new minister cracked down hard on subversives and he and his young family required constant police protection.

Des O’Malley, minister for justice, in 1970.
Des O’Malley, minister for justice, in 1970.

He was responsible for strengthening the Offences Against the State Act so that a person could be convicted of IRA membership on the word of a Garda superintendant. He introduced the Special Criminal Court with no jury and hinted at bringing in internment because of an unspecified threat to public security.

To deal with student agitation over the demolition of valued buildings, the young minister introduced the Forcible Entry Bill but for this he was pelted with eggs at a meeting in UCD. He also incurred the anger of the Bar Council when he proposed merging the professions of solicitor and barrister.

In opposition from 1973 to 1977, O’Malley was spokesman for industry and commerce. He is remembered chiefly in this period for sustained attack on the then minister, Justin Keating, over his handling of the Bula mines controversy.

O’Malley also had some doubts about the constitutional implications of the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement negotiated by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition with the British government and the Northern Ireland parties. “Ireland is one Ireland, one nation, one country because God made it one,’’ he proclaimed.

On the Coalition’s bill to liberalise the contraceptives ban, he also took a negative stance he was to disown later with some embarrassment. He said he agreed with a Supreme Court judge’s view that “the deterrence of fornication and promiscuity’’ was “a legitimate legislative aim and a matter not of private but of public morality’’. Ironically, it was his refusal 10 years later to vote with Fianna Fáil against another liberalisation bill on contraceptives that led to his expulsion from the party.

Industry brief

As minister for industry, commerce and energy in the new Fianna Fáil government, O’Malley worked hard to promote exports, and attract foreign investment. But when the energy crisis struck in 1979, the oil multinationals rebuffed his demand to increase imports while keeping the price stable.

He was a keen advocate of Ireland developing nuclear energy as an alternative to oil in accordance with then EEC policy but again he was rebuffed by public opinion and cabinet colleagues.

Politically, he was shocked when Haughey succeeded Lynch as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach, defeating O’Malley’s choice, George Colley. But he continued to serve in the cabinet while trying to move the party to embrace a wider vision of republicanism than ending partition.

Leadership challenge

O’Malley’s increasing unhappiness with Haughey came to a head in a challenge to his leadership following the February 1982 general election in which Fianna Fáil failed to win an overall majority.

But the challenge collapsed when supporters of O’Malley got cold feet and Haughey went on to form a short-lived government, which included his rival, with the support of Independents and the Workers’ Party.

The following October when Charlie McCreevy launched a new challenge to Haughey’s leadership, O’Malley was in Spain. While having doubts about the timing of this move, he resigned as minister to support the McCreevy motion which was easily defeated by 58 votes to 22. When Haughey survived a third “heave’’ against him in February 1983, all internal dissent appeared to be crushed as Fianna Fáil went into opposition for the next four years.

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.’’

But new crises erupted for O’Malley during this period. First he lost the party whip at the demand of Haughey in May 1984 over his criticism of the leader’s stifling of debate on the report of the New Ireland Forum. Only 16 members voted against the motion and the Fianna Fáil press officer, PJ Mara, told political correspondents it would now be uno duce, una voce inside the party and “there’ll be no more nibbling at my leader’s bum’’.

Alienation

O’Malley was now seen as so alienated from the party he once might have led that he was described by John Kelly of Fine Gael as reduced to “sleeping under political bridges’’. But a further humiliation was in store.

In February 1985, when he refused to take the party line and oppose the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition Bill to liberalise the contraceptive law, O’Malley was expelled from the party, again at the insistence of Haughey, for “conduct unbecoming’’. Haughey was reported to have told some members who pleaded for O’Malley: “It’s him or me.’’

As he left Fianna Fáil headquarters for the last time, O’Malley kissed his wife and joked: “I hope this is not conduct unbecoming.’’ His speech in the contraceptive bill debate in which he denounced the Fianna Fáil opposition to the measure was widely praised as one of the best ever heard in the Dáil. He concluded by saying: “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.’’

New party

He was now a totally isolated figure but the option of forming a new political party which he had already been considering would open the way to a return to centre stage as the coalition staggered from one economic crisis to another and Fianna Fáil was stuck with a leader who could not win an overall majority.

Urged on by figures such as Mary Harney, who was expelled from Fianna Fáil for approving the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and Michael McDowell who left Fine Gael, O’Malley took the plunge and founded the Progressive Democrats at the end of 1985. “For the past year, I have been struck by the strength of feeling throughout the country in favour of breaking the moulds of Irish politics and giving the Irish voters a new and real alternative,’’ he said at the launch of the new party.

O'Malley paid tribute to Haughey’s “courage and skill which I know he possesses in abundance and which has been utilised in abundance in the national interest during this time’’

In the early days, opinion polls showed support for the PDs running as high as 25 per cent, ahead of even Fine Gael and Labour as Bobby Molloy and Pearse Wyse of Fianna Fáil and Michael Keating of Fine Gael joined the new party. But there was disappointment for O’Malley and his supporters that more of the Fianna Fáil anti-Haughey TDs did not join them.

At the next election, the PDs won a respectable 14 seats with 12 per cent of the vote but this was to be the party’s peak of electoral support. The 1989 election result was disastrous for the PDs who lost eight seats but they unexpectedly ended up in coalition with Fianna Fáil which was six seats short of a majority.

The country was treated to the extraordinary spectacle of the once implacable political foes, Haughey and O’Malley, negotiating a power-sharing partnership. The latter paid tribute to Haughey’s “courage and skill which I know he possesses in abundance and which has been utilised in abundance in the national interest during this time’’.

Strained coalition

While the two leaders maintained a working relationship, it was a strained coalition. Albert Reynolds angered the PDs by dubbing it “a temporary little arrangement’’. But O’Malley, now minister for industry and commerce again, backed up by Molloy and Harney who were also in government, showed steel in insisting on the resignation of tánaiste Brian Lenihan during his campaign for the presidency in October 1990. This was over phone calls to Áras an Uachtaráin back in 1982 which Lenihan both admitted and denied making.

It was Haughey’s turn to go in February 1992 when he was accused by his former minister for justice Seán Doherty of knowing about the tapping of political journalists’ phones when Fianna Fáil was in power in 1982. O’Malley and his colleagues gave the thumbs down to Haughey when they said that “this is but the latest – and almost certainly the most serious – in a long list of unhappy and politically unacceptable controversies which undermined the capacity of the Government to work effectively’’.

Beef tribunal

Reynolds succeeded Haughey but he and O’Malley soon broke up the “temporary little arrangement’’ as a result of their respective testimonies to the Beef tribunal which the PDs had insisted on setting up to inquire into alleged abuses in the industry. O’Malley described the actions of Mr Reynolds when granting export credit insurance to the Goodman company in the 1980s as “wrong, grossly unwise, reckless and foolish’’. Several months later in September 1992, Reynolds in his testimony criticised O’Malley’s evidence to the tribunal as “reckless, irresponsible and dishonest’’.

Within weeks the ill-starred coalition was dissolved and an election called. The PDs recovered to 10 seats in the new Dáil but were back in opposition. O’Malley announced his resignation as leader a year later but greatly aggrieved one of his staunchest allies, Munster MEP Pat Cox, by appearing to favour Harney in the leadership contest.

Harney duly became leader but she miscalculated when she pushed O’Malley to run for Cox’s European seat in 1994, assuming that the latter would stand down in his favour and remain as a TD in the Dáil. Cox again saw an O’Malley-Harney agreement on which he had not been consulted and announced he would run in Munster as an Independent in the European election.

The bitter contest helped to split the PDs in Munster and O’Malley lost his first election to the man whom he had once chosen to be the secretary of the party. “It’s a funny feeling losing an election and I am trying to get used to it,’’ he commented after the result. But there was also anger against Cox about whom he said “I will not be seeking his company in future’’.

Back seat

O’Malley held his Dáil seat in the June 1997 election but with a much smaller majority. With the PDs reduced to four seats, there was no room for him in the new Fianna Fáil-PD coalition where Harney served as tánaiste.

O’Malley was able to use his appointment as chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs to travel widely and urge closer Irish integration with the EU, especially in security and defence matters. When former taoiseach Jack Lynch died, his widow Mairin asked Mr O’Malley to make the graveside oration.

Des O Malley speaking at the graveside of former taoiseach Jack Lynch in Cork. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill.
Des O Malley speaking at the graveside of former taoiseach Jack Lynch in Cork. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill.

As the various tribunals revealed serious allegations against Haughey and Ray Burke and raised questions about financial contributions to Pádraig Flynn, O’Malley could not refrain from telling the Dáil what the party had suffered under Haughey who had “created a climate of fear, a climate of greed, a climate of secrecy and conspiracy’’.

Desmond O’Malley was predeceased by his wife Pat, and brother Peter. He is survived by his daughters Catherine, Hilary, Fiona and Maeve; sons Desmond and Eoin; sister Denise; and his brother Joseph