Miriam Lord: Des O’Malley exits the stage after a life of drama and political duelling

The PD founder was charming, but could also be grumpy – especially around Charlie

An Irish Times cartoon of Charlie Haughey and Des O’Malley with the caption ‘Mr Haughey leaving office with dignity’. Illustration: Martyn Turner

An Irish Times cartoon of Charlie Haughey and Des O’Malley with the caption ‘Mr Haughey leaving office with dignity’. Illustration: Martyn Turner

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“Ah, Dessie. Would you ever give up them aul’ cigarettes?”

He wouldn’t play a blind bit of notice. He smoked like a chimney and that’s the way it was.

After every speech, every press conference, the drill was always the same. Dessie O’Malley would walk away from the microphones, hands patting down his jacket pockets just to be sure, to be sure that his ciggies were there.

Every time, that instinctive action, as he beetled towards the door.

The mind boggles now at the idea of those legendary “smoke-filled” rooms where men once plotted and planned political elevations and assassinations, bitter rivalries often spilling out into the corridors and bars of Leinster House and through to the plinth.

Although established by the former Fianna Fáil minister with the names of illustrious others on the birth cert, it was really Dessie’s baby

Dramatic days, lived for some of us through television news in the background and lively adult conversations. We knew the names of the parties and the big players. There was Jack Lynch, for a long time known as “The Real Taoiseach” – pronounced by Dubs in what they imagined was a Montenotte accent. Dessie was the one with the big head of wavy hair and distinctive voice. And there was Charlie, always Charlie.

Growing up with the high theatre of the arms crisis and the subsequent intrigue and in-fighting in Fianna Fáil. The duel at the top between Charles J Haughey and Desmond O’Malley. Supporters of both seeing it as a battle for the soul of Fianna Fáil.

Charlie won the battle. The soul scarpered.

Almost 40 years later, with the announcement of Dessie O’Malley’s death, one word keeps cropping up in the various tributes to and assessments of his life in public service: “incorruptible”.

A word never used when his nemesis died.

Dessie, perhaps, won the war after all. (Either way, the soul is still wandering abroad.)

He was kicked out of the party in 1985 for “conduct unbecoming”. He kissed his wife Pat on the steps of headquarters after his expulsion. “I hope that’s not conduct unbecoming,” he chortled.

It wasn’t long before he was leading his own political party – the Progressive Democrats. Although established by the former Fianna Fáil minister with the names of illustrious others on the birth cert, it was really Dessie’s baby.

Tizzy

The arrival of a new movement fiscally to the right but with a non-threatening dollop of liberalism to spice up the mix threw comfortable middle Ireland into a tizzy.

The PDs were born into a heady world of joyous and slightly hysterical welcome, falling into the many and willing arms of business professionals angry at the taxman and the unions, lawyers who liked the brand and the rudderless ranks of the upwardly mobile.

O’Malley had a faithful group of supporters from the start: the Desettes, well-coiffed ladies, mainly from Limerick, who turned up at most events to wildly applaud and enjoy the social aspect afterwards. It was a very civilised party.

But for a national politician, Dessie never seemed particularly comfortable in the public arena. He wasn’t your typical Fianna Fáil glad-hander and wasn’t one for tramping around the constituency knocking on doors. He often appeared ill at ease on media outings. Nonetheless, he was a shrewd and confident political operator.

The party opened its office around the corner from Leinster House in South Frederick Street, its leader declaring he wanted “to raise the siege” which saw people held down by disastrous financial policies. And they were, of course, going to “break the mould” of the Irish politics. (Or break the mould of Charlie Haughey, in O’Malley’s case.) After the official opening –- in a building shared with the Financial Times – everyone repaired upstairs for Christmas drinks and a buffet.

Dessie did a bit of acting in his college days and liked it. The year after he founded the PDs he was one of the narrators, along with Eamon Morrissey, in a Bloomsday production by Limerick’s Belltable of Songs at Twilight, a show based on Ulysses. It was held in the Great Hall at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham. He got excellent reviews.

His party captured an impressive 14 seats in its first general election. The PDs never managed that again, although next time out they succeeded in breaking the mould and changing the course of Irish politics when Haughey committed the unthinkable and took Fianna Fáil into coalition for the first time. The fact he was now sharing a cabinet able with archenemy O’Malley speaks volumes for the attraction of power.

In 1992, with the slogan “Tried and Tested”, the PDs won four seats. Dessie resigned the following year.

Overwhelmed

He went to Omagh with his wife Pat in the aftermath of the bombing in 1998 – her family owned a pub in the town. They were both overwhelmed by the scene. We met in a pub near the site of the explosion, the O’Malleys coming to terms with what they had just witnessed. John Hume joined us.

The much-travelled MEP tried to change the subject for a while by talking about wine.

Holding up a small bottle of red, Hume told us that the best wine has “mis en bouteille à la propriété” on the label. He slowly repeated: “That means bottled on the property.”

“Really?” said Dessie, trying to stifle a smile while John Hume held forth on the noble grape.

It was a bizarre moment in the midst of terrible tragedy. But O’Malley’s expression was priceless.

He had a waspish sense of humour, which made him excellent company. But he could also be very grumpy. Those who know him liked him. Those who didn’t were a little afraid of him.

“He was very well respected by all. He always had a huge following in the Law Library, ” said a journalist who covered much of O’Malley’s long career. “The hacks liked him too, even though he could eat you alive if you asked what he considered a stupid question.”

When he and Pat moved from Limerick to an apartment in Donnybrook in 2002, he sometimes went for a drink in the Dáil bar. He was in quite a bit when Pat, the boss, was getting a new kitchen put in. He adored her, and she took none of his guff.

Horseracing

And he could talk horseracing with his fellow bloodstock owners. At one stage he had a leg of a horse in one of the Dáil racing syndicates. On the evenings he was around, Dessie’s take on the political matters of the day was always worth listening to, along with his takedown of whatever politician was mildly irritating him at that time.

He was worshipped by the PD faithful, admired by the Fine Gaelers and highly (sometimes sneakily) regarded by many in the party he left behind. On the 20th anniversary of the Progressive Democrats in 2005, he sat in the front row at the annual conference and was warmly applauded by delegates. Three years later the party was wound up at a special meeting. Its founding father didn’t attend but he sent a message telling delegates it was the right thing to do.

Jack Lynch, the taoiseach who gave Dessie a ministerial position two years after he was first elected, was his hero. After Lynch died, the party was wounded when his widow Mairín requested that Dessie give the graveside oration. He did his mentor proud.

Former taoiseach Haughey attended the funeral, unintentionally slipping into the wrong pew and finding himself sitting next to an equally startled O’Malley, who would deliver a coded, yet pointed attack on his political foe just a few hours later. They could barely look at each other.

In 2017 after a long and turbulent political career, Dessie O’Malley delivered what he said was the hardest ever speech of his life.

From the altar at Pat’s funeral mass.

“This thing should have been the other way around. I, and most people, expected that I would be the first to go. It would have been better for everyone if that were so, but the better one went first.”

Two weeks ago, still politically engaged, he voted for the last time in the Dublin Bay South byelection.

Wonder who got his number one.

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