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Des O’Malley: a huge force in Irish politics and foe of Charlie Haughey has died

The former Progressive Democrats leader was aged 82

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Former Progressive Democrats leader Des O'Malley

Former Progressive Democrats leader Des O'Malley

Former Progressive Democrats leader Des O'Malley

Des O’Malley, who was a dominant figure in Irish politics across four decades, has died aged 82.

Mr O’Malley was less than two years a TD when he was appointed Justice Minister in a crisis-stricken government, hit by a ministerial plot to import arms for the IRA, just as sectarian violence exploded in the North.

He later gained more prominence due to bitter tussles with his Fianna Fáil boss, Charlie Haughey, an enmity that led to him being driven out of the party and founding the breakaway Progressive Democrats in December 1985.

Although they never gained big Dáil numbers, the Progressive Democrats were a huge force in Irish politics, participating in and shaping coalition governments for more than half of their 25-year existence.

Ironically, O’Malley obliged Haughey in June 1989 to abandon a core value of never sharing government, by forming the first ever Fianna Fáil coalition with their previously hated renegades and rivals.

Despite his huge impact on Ireland’s politics, the Limerick city TD often saw himself as something of “an accidental politician”: he was uncomfortable in the limelight and disliked being a party leader.

He acknowledged that he was deemed “a dour character” by many, he usually avoided local matters, and he focused on national issues.

He was just 29, and working in Limerick city, in his father’s solicitor’s office, in May 1968, when he was persuaded to stand for Fianna Fáil.

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A by-election had been called following the sudden death of his uncle, Donogh O’Malley, still renowned for announcing free secondary education and free school transport in 1966.

He succeeded in the by-election which was hard fought and bitter.

His uncle’s widow, Hilda, did not stand and advised Des to avoid political life, given her experiences.

But Hilda O’Malley did field unsuccessfully as an Independent rival in the general election of June 1969, and the O’Malley-versus-O’Malley contest attracted international headlines.

After Des’s re-election for Fianna Fáil in 1969, the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, appointed him as government chief whip, meaning he would attend weekly cabinet meetings.

It began more than 12 years of cabinet membership as Justice Minister 1970-1973, and several stints as minister responsible for industry and business over the years 1977-1982 and again 1989-1992.

His time as Justice Minister he described as “unpleasant with a capital U”.

The 1970 arms importation plot led to the sacking of two Fianna Fáil “big beasts” who had been deemed potential leaders – Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney – and the resignation of another party kingpin, Kevin Boland.

The prolonged arms trials of Haughey and Blaney, which ended in acquittals, generated huge controversy and deep party splits.

O’Malley remained steadfastly loyal to Jack Lynch, revering Lynch’s memory right up to the day of his own death.

As Justice Minister O’Malley engaged in a gut struggle with subversive paramilitaries, especially the IRA, at a very dangerous time.

In 1972 he revived the non-jury Special Criminal Court to try paramilitary suspects and avoid jury intimidation and witness tampering. Despite the controversy and bitter criticism, he noted in his 2014 memoir, Conduct Unbecoming, that the court “has never been abolished”.

O’Malley’s relationship with Haughey, who had been a drinking buddy of his late uncle, Donogh, was always fraught.

As a Lynch loyalist he had backed the other leadership contestant, George Colley, whom Haughey defeated in December 1979 after Jack Lynch was forced to quit prematurely.

Des O’Malley, like Colley and his other supporters, believed Haughey was corrupt with too many questions about his apparently vast personal wealth.

The rows surrounding the 1970s arms crisis left deep enmity. After many disputes and botched anti-Haughey heaves, he finally quit Haughey’s cabinet in 1982.

Then in 1985, after O’Malley defied the party whip in a vote on reforming the laws on contraception, Haughey had him expelled from the entire Fianna Fáil organisation. “Conduct unbecoming” – which became the title of his political memoir – was the offence cited to justify expulsion.

After months of speculation and false starts, the Progressive Democrat party was launched on December 21, 1985, along with another Fianna Fáil exile, Mary Harney, and Michael McDowell, who had been linked to Fine Gael.

For a time it caused a sensation with inaugural meetings packing out halls across the country.

In the February 1987 general election it returned 14 TDs and narrowly missed out on several other Dáil seats. But their star debut was hard to sustain and by June 1989 they were reduced to just six TDs.

However, depleted numbers for Charlie Haughey’s Fianna Fáil led to that most unlikely coalition. Things worked well enough under Haughey but when Albert Reynolds took over Fianna Fáil in February 1992 relations quickly degraded.

Matters came to a head when Reynolds later accused O’Malley of “perjury” at a tribunal of inquiry into the beef industry. That coalition fell apart acrimoniously in late 1994.

He had passed the party leadership to Mary Harney in 1993 but struggled to take a back seat in politics.

O’Malley was involved in another tussle in June 1994 when he lost a European Parliament election to Pat Cox who had quit the Progressive Democrats and stood as an independent.

Des O’Malley avoided involvement in subsequent Fianna Fáil coalitions and finally quit politics in 2002. He served for a time after that as a director of the EU’s European Bank of Reconstruction and Development based in London.

His wife, Pat, who supported him through his efforts, died in 2017. The couple had two sons and four daughters, including Fiona O’Malley who was a TD and later a senator for the years 2002-2011.

His brother, Joseph O’Malley, was a long-time political editor of the Sunday Independent and his son, Eoin, an associate professor at Dublin City University, is a popular political columnist with that newspaper.

This article has been amended on July 21, 2021 to reflect Des O’Malley was expelled from Fianna Fáil in 1985 not 1984


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