Opinion

Tuesday 25 June 2019

O'Malley has much to teach young voters

Memoir reveals the big decisions O'Malley made that made him the target of a nationalist sniper, says John-Paul McCarthy

Des O'Malley and Liz O'Donnell
Des O'Malley and Liz O'Donnell

John-Paul McCarthy

Modern Irish political memoirs have not kept pace with international competition. No Irish prime minister has matched Tony Blair's book. ("The euphoria…of the early years had long dissipated. Instead, each day, each meeting, occasionally each hour seemed a struggle.")

And we have nothing to offer in the candour stakes that could rival Helmut Kohl's recent reminiscences about the Americans. (Kohl recalled the Lewinsky business and rounded on President Clinton for "fiddling with her knickers and now the whole world was only interested in those knickers"). That said, we do a good line in Asperger-ish memoirs.

Think of de Valera's post-mortem autobiography, Maurice Moynihan's edition of his speeches from 1981, itself the product of a 43-year conversation between them. Moynihan's commentary conveys something of the dead chief's remorse when contemplating his calamitous handling of the Treaty negotiations, yet his bizarre visit to the German embassy in 1945 upon the occasion of the Fuhrer's suicide still rankled so badly that Moynihan refused even to mention it.

Garret FitzGerald wrote his own memoir, of course, but he also had something of de Valera's lack of self-awareness and emotional range.

He took time out from his cynical and partisan account of the 1983 abortion referendum to recall how difficult he found it to get a meeting with some Catholic bishop. This was one in the eye, or so he thought, for hostile outsiders like Paul Blanshard who based their charge of theocracy on the belief that "church and state are closely linked".

Now Des O'Malley has offered his own contribution to this genre with his new memoir, Conduct Unbecoming. Judging by his extensive reflections, his preferred tone is one of irritable exasperation. He has decided to drop another 10-tonne piano on Charles Haughey's head.

O'Malley pointedly accuses the Arms Trial defendants from 1970 of outright treason. He is proof against parody here since he knew all the principals. He explained his analysis in the Dail back in 2001 in succinct terms that bear repeating: "Despite the acquittals (of Haughey and Blaney), there is no doubt, but there was a wide-ranging conspiracy to import arms for the use of illegal organisations in Northern Ireland. By definition, this plan had to be illegal since, under the Firearms Act, 1925, neither the Minister for Defence nor the Minister for Justice had authority to licence imports of arms for this purpose.

"There is no record whatever of the Government ever having purported to take a decision to import arms for this purpose and the evidence refutes that contention. I know. I was there. I sat at the table from July 1969 onwards."

Jack Lynch made O'Malley Minister for Justice after he removed Haughey and Neil Blaney from the Cabinet. It is important for younger readers to appreciate this aspect of his career, especially at a time when the political wing of the Provisional IRA have convinced a goodly part of the electorate that they were helpless victims during the armed struggle.

O'Malley's three years at Justice required several extraordinary decisions. Lynch and O'Malley refused to allow protests near the Curragh in 1972, which held people who had been convicted at the Special Criminal Court, and they had the camp guarded by Irish soldiers with fixed bayonets and loaded sub-machine guns.

This same army petitioned O'Malley and Lynch for permission to thwart the immolation of the British Embassy that same year with live ammunition. Reasoning that one Bloody Sunday in Derry was sufficient, they refused.

Lynch himself also invoked the fearsome Offences Against the State Act at this time to shutter the Provisional Sinn Fein headquarters at Kevin Street, Dublin and to arrest that party's vice-president. For the first time since the Civil War, both the Taoiseach and the Justice Minister required garda protection, not from the RUC, but from other Irish nationalists.

O'Malley himself was under surveillance and might just as easily have ended his tenure like Kevin O'Higgins if the gardai did not discover a sniper's nest facing his apartment.

The strain and stress of these experiences must kill off other emotional impulses. We can see this, for example, in O'Malley's famous critique of Haughey's family-values conservatism as applied to contraception in 1985.

If you read his 'I Stand by the Republic' speech carefully, it is clear that O'Malley values liberalism there only insofar as it helps get something else, namely unification by consent. Liberalism in and of itself has no real valency for O'Malley, liberals not having been all that helpful when he mandated juryless trials a decade before.

And the same could be said for Lynch, himself probably the most socially conservative Taoiseach before Liam Cosgrave's premiership. If O'Malley helped liberalise economic practice, it would be left to Dick Spring and Mary Robinson to help Irish society join the modern world.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice