Des O’Malley was at the heart of politics for two decades, at great personal cost. He wasn’t a natural leader, or driven by power, but he was a pragmatist who served us well
My father’s life was longer and more turbulent than he expected. Born before the war — a pre-war baby, he liked to say — his description of his childhood, possibly exaggerated for effect, sounded more like a 19th century one rather than anything his children could relate to.
Born into a large house in Limerick city, he was from a middle-class family that had gone from a small farm in rural east Limerick, via a pub in Limerick city, to being among the professional classes and city fathers in just a few generations. He was raised by a nanny, whose cooking he would refer to frequently. He travelled to school, the Crescent, by pony and trap, where he excelled academically, and there was an expectation that Des would go to university, like all the men in his family.
At UCD in the late 1950s and early 1960s he studied law, with the expectation he would join his father’s practice in Limerick.
At university he was a young radical — somewhere to the left of where he eventually found himself. He recounted stories of protests against the college authorities, usually as they attempted to shut down debates. The university was very authoritarian, and because of that he developed a lingering disrespect for some of the senior people in the university, such as Garret FitzGerald. One thing he had was an ability to hold grudges — not always a good quality for a politician.
In UCD he met my mum, Patricia McAleer from Omagh, Co Tyrone. He went on to study in the Law Society, coming first in his class, and she went first to England to teach, and then to Strabane. Des returned to Limerick to work in his father’s small practice, and they corresponded until he “rescued her from a life taking the Strabane bus”.
They settled into a comfortable married life in 1965, my mother producing children with regularity. But he was unusual in thinking a lot about politics, including in domestic decisions; their first foreign holiday as a married couple was to non-aligned socialist Yugoslavia, because he couldn’t countenance giving support to Franco’s Spain.
Des’s father died soon after, forcing him to take over the law firm earlier than he would have expected. When his uncle Donogh also died too young in 1968, and his widow Hilda declined the offer to stand for Fianna Fáil in the by-election, Des was drafted in. It was earlier than he expected, but politics was always something on the agenda. In that by-election he was exposed to Neil Blaney’s legendary campaigning. He was shocked at Blaney’s use of civil war rhetoric, and questioned whether it was helpful in Limerick city in the late 1960s.
After the subsequent election Des was promoted to chief whip, bringing him close to the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, and giving him a front row seat as the emerging crisis in Northern Ireland was addressed by the Fianna Fáil cabinet.
He didn’t know it at the time, but the divisions he saw in the cabinet would catapult him to the centre of Irish politics, where he would remain for over two decades. When the arms crisis emerged in May 1970 he was summoned by Lynch to become minister for justice, aged just 31. His reforming, anti-authoritarian zeal was extinguished by circumstances. What might have been his opportunity to liberalise laws and reform the court system gave way to more authoritarian laws because of the IRA threat.
He didn’t escape from the Troubles personally. There was a direct threat on his life, which forced him to have to carry a gun during this time. He wasn’t allowed to stay in the same place or establish a routine that might expose him to an assassination attempt. Our family home in Limerick had armed gardaí protecting it and my older sisters were accompanied to school by the guards. My grandfather’s pub in Omagh was destroyed by the IRA because they didn’t like his son-in-law’s position. As children we laughed at the incongruous gun-toting hero, but the pressure on him was immense, and he was courageous in not caving in to it.
These experiences left him with a visceral hatred of the IRA, and, unlike others, he refused to speak out of both sides of his mouth on its campaign of violence. It failed to allow him to recognise the practical politics of securing peace. Later in government, Albert Reynolds didn’t divulge his tentative steps toward an accord with the IRA, partly because Reynolds divulged nothing to O’Malley, but also because he recognised that my father would have objected.
In opposition in the 1970s he emerged as one of the more effective parliamentarians, becoming a senior member of Fianna Fáil despite still being in his 30s. In 1977 he was given the energy portfolio to deal with the oil crisis. He favoured nuclear energy as a way to reduce Ireland’s dependence, which suggests his willingness to consider the unthinkable. But he never used this time to build a base in Fianna Fáil, and his irascible nature didn’t endear him to those he would depend on later.
That time came when Charles Haughey became leader of Fianna Fáil and taoiseach. My father had regarded Haughey as pragmatic and sensible until the arms crisis. After that he shared the deep distrust most of the Fianna Fáil grandees had in Haughey.
He was pragmatic enough to try to work with Haughey, but the distrust never went away. After George Colley’s death, opposition to Haughey within the party centred on my father. He never appeared terribly comfortable with that mantle, and he lacked the political skills to challenge Haughey. It was another time of crisis and stress. He suspected our home phone was being bugged, and there was a constant air of menace in Fianna Fáil politics.
So I wonder was his expulsion from Fianna Fáil a relief. He was in a serious car crash soon after, which meant a long recuperation at home, a place he had spent precious little time in the previous 15 years. The decision was then taken, in the main owing to pressure from Mary Harney, to set up a new political party.
The Progressive Democrats gave him a glimpse of political popularity that had eluded him before. There were monster meetings that attracted thousands of people depressed by the inertia of the Fine Gael/Labour government and troubled by Haughey’s Fianna Fáil. As well as popular support, he briefly enjoyed the approval of the Dublin commentariat class.
In 1987 the PDs performed creditably, overtaking Labour, and the opposition to the Fianna Fáil minority government might have been his happiest period in politics. He was impressed by the focus of his TDs, but while they may have been doing good work in Leinster House his experience should have warned them of the need to mind their seats. His national prominence from so young possibly meant he didn’t have to work at this as hard, but in the 1989 election many of the most effective TDs, such as Michael McDowell, lost their seats.
After that I was on holidays with my parents in the south of England when news reached us that Harney suggested a Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition should be considered. He was apoplectic. As usual Harney had a better read of the politics, and the next few weeks, the first time I think I lived with him, he was under immense stress as he was left with the decision as to whether to go into government with someone he didn’t trust. I remember the night he did so, as he had senior party members leave it up to him, and he eventually decided that all the alternatives were worse, including another election in which the PDs, already damaged, could be wiped out.
In that decision he showed his understanding of real politics. He lost support in that decision, but it was the sensible one. Too many of us idolise politicians for sticking to their convictions, but refusing to get involved yields nothing. Though Des was often charged with the lazy label of “neoliberal” he was no ideologue. He was sceptical of social partnership, but when he saw it helped the country, he supported it.
That decision to give Haughey a lifeline ironically spelled the end of Haughey’s career, as many in Fianna Fáil objected to the coalition. It was a period in which Des was more powerful than ever before. It was also, surprisingly, a period of relative calm. He and Haughey worked well together. Haughey understood power and respected my father. They may not have been close, or even trusted each other, but they managed that government well. He was able to work on industrial and competition policy, for once without constant crisis.
Haughey’s replacement by Albert Reynolds ended that, and when that government collapsed and an election ensued he felt the PDs were in a strong position. He was never that obsessed with power and so was happy to retire. He had been spoken about frequently as a taoiseach that Ireland could have had, but he never wanted it that much. Nor do I think he would have been that good at it. He was not a natural leader; he just found himself in a position where he was expected to be one.
That expectation took a great toll on his personal life. He was deeply fortunate that my mother, so loyal and supporting, could keep the family going. Politics is a horrific job for families. Even if you are not at the centre of as many political storms as my dad was, just the time it takes means time that you cannot give to your family. Though he missed many events, he parented in another way, by providing a good example of courage and dedication.
His diet of cigarettes and stress meant he was unlikely to live a long life. But the miracles of medicine allowed him to enjoy a relatively peaceful retirement, enjoying sport, especially rugby and horse racing, including regular, if modest, bets. Even though his body was ravaged in the last year, his mind remained as sharp as his tongue until the end.