Des O'Malley was one of the most significant political figures in Ireland in the final decades of the 20th century. He played an important role in governments from the 1970s until the 1990s, founded a new political party, stood unreservedly for democratic values against the onslaught of IRA violence and had the distinction of being widely respected as an honest, straight-talking politician.
O'Malley came from a Limerick political dynasty and was first elected to the Dáil in 1968 at the age of 29 in a byelection caused by the death of his uncle, Donogh. The then taoiseach Jack Lynch was impressed by his new TD and appointed him chief whip after the general election of 1969.
He came of age in politics in the heat of the arms crisis of 1970 and it was an experience which marked him for the rest of his political life. He was fiercely loyal to Lynch and never forgave Charles Haughey for his role in the attempted illegal importation of weapons.
Appointed minister for justice after the arms crisis, he had to deal with escalating republican violence. He was subject to IRA death threats and his family required round-the-clock Garda protection for much of his time in the department. It was an experience that coloured his political attitudes for the rest of his life.
Haughey's election as Fianna Fáil leader in 1979 came as a bitter disappointment and O'Malley was involved in three attempts to remove him. The final breach with the party came when he was expelled for "conduct unbecoming" having refused to vote against a bill liberalising the law on contraception. Instead he made a riveting speech to the Dáil, declaring that he would "stand by the Republic".
The following year he founded the Progressive Democrats along with Mary Harney and Michael McDowell. The party made a breakthrough in 1987, depriving Haughey of an overall majority, and two years later O'Malley went into coalition with Fianna Fáil, forcing that party to abandon one of its core values. It was a bittersweet moment for O'Malley as it involved working with his great adversary. Like many a politician O'Malley's career ended in failure with defeat in the 1994 European election and the demise of the PDs in 2008.
Nonetheless, O’Malley has left a significant legacy. The party he founded helped to shape the liberal Ireland we know today through support for family planning and divorce. It also had a significant influence in creating the dynamic open economy which has transformed living standards and led to a rapidly rising population in recent decades. Most of all, though, Des O’Malley will be remembered as a fearless defender of the State’s democratic institutions against those who believe that violence can be justified in pursuit of political ends.