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Desmond O’Malley was a true statesman who put his country before his party

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Des O'Malley as trade minister in 1991. Picture by John Carlos

Des O'Malley as trade minister in 1991. Picture by John Carlos

Des O'Malley as trade minister in 1991. Picture by John Carlos

Back in the days when Fianna Fáil was in its pomp, as the “natural party of Government”, it was neither profitable nor popular to think for yourself.

One man who found this out, to his party’s cost but his personal credit, was Desmond O’Malley, who has died aged 82.

If a statesman is someone who puts his country before his party then O’Malley’s pedigree could not be purer. He served as minister for justice when the Troubles were at their bleakest. It is known he slept with a revolver under his pillow.

His antipathy to militant republicanism was well known. There is a bitter irony that on the day he died, peace in the North should once again be a subject of concern, this time as yet another showdown looms over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Back when he agreed to become minister for justice in 1970, after being asked by then Taoiseach Jack Lynch, he knew he was taking a hot seat. He had no idea how hot.

On securing his assent, Lynch then told him he was about to sack two leading lights in cabinet.

The defenestration of Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney, and the subsequent Arms Trial, was one of the most sensational political contretemps of the 20th century in this country. Security became front and centre.

Haughey and Blaney were acquitted but the rancour and recriminations that would follow their dismissals would hang in the air for years to come.

In 1979 when Haughey became leader of Fianna Fáil the “great dividing line” was reached, O’Malley would later write. That was when, as O’Malley saw it, “all the rules and conventions that existed prior to that changed overnight”. 

What separated O’Malley from the crowd was his ability to come through so many crises often bloodied but always unbowed.

Not only did he weather the Arms Crisis but he also found himself taking on all comers in the Beef Tribunal. He would once again find himself in the eye of the storm over the infamous phone-tapping scandal.

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His stubborn refusal to buckle under pressure or to kowtow for personal expediency would result in his ludicrous expulsion from the party, for “conduct unbecoming”, by Mr Haughey.

The two had found themselves in each other’s orbit once too often.

Haughey, when exiting the stage, would grandiosely remark: “I have done the State some service but enough of that.” History’s verdict was more circumspect while O’Malley, always diffident and dignified, would be humbled by the respect he garnered up to the end.

With the founding of the Progressive Democrats he gave physical embodiment to long-stifled democratic ideals.

Somewhat sanctimoniously it would be joked were you to ring the PDs’ HQ, a Limerick voice might be heard at the other end, saying: “Speak after you hear the high moral tone.”

But had that “tone” been better heeded then both Fianna Fáil and the country might have better prospered.


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