Des O’Malley, who was a dominant figure in Irish politics for four decades, has died at the age of 82.
r O’Malley was less than two years of TD when he was appointed Minister of Justice in a government in crisis, affected by a cabinet plot to import weapons for the IRA, as sectarian violence erupted in the North.
He later gained prominence through bitter struggles with his Fianna Fáil boss Charlie Haughey, a feud that led him to be kicked out of the party and found the Separatist Progressive Democrats in December 1985.
Progressive Democrats, although they never won large numbers in the Dáil, have been a huge force in Irish politics, participating in and shaping coalition governments for more than half of their 25 years of existence.
Ironically, O’Malley forced Haughey in June 1989 to abandon a core value of never sharing government, forming a very first Fianna Fáil coalition with their renegades and previously hated rivals.
Despite his enormous impact on Irish politics, the City of Limerick TD often saw himself as some sort of ‘accidental politician’, uncomfortable in the limelight and disliked being a party leader. .
He admitted that he was considered by many to be “an austere figure,” that he generally avoided local issues and focused on national issues.
He was only 29 years old and worked in the city of Limerick in his father’s law office in May 1968 when he was persuaded to represent Fianna Fáil.
It was during the by-election brought about by the sudden death of his uncle, Donogh O’Malley, still famous for having announced free secondary education and school transport in 1966.
He succeeded in the by-election which was fierce and bitter.
Her uncle’s widow, Hilda, did not stand up and advised Des to avoid politics given her experiences.
But Hilda O’Malley ran unsuccessfully as an independent rival in the June 1969 general election, and the O’Malley vs. O’Malley contest grabbed international headlines.
After his re-election to Fianna Fáil in 1969, Taoiseach Jack Lynch appointed him chief government whip, meaning he attended weekly cabinet meetings.
He began more than 12 years in the cabinet as Minister of Justice 1970-1973, and several stints as Minister responsible for industry and business during the years 1977-1982 and again 1989-1992 .
His tenure as Minister of Justice he described as “unpleasant with a capital U”.
The 1970 arms import plot led to the sacking of two Fianna Fáil “big beasts” considered potential leaders, Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney, and the resignation of another party pillar, Kevin Boland.
The protracted arms trials of Haughey and Blaney, which ended in acquittals, sparked enormous controversy and deep divisions between the parties.
O’Malley remained loyal to Jack Lynch and revered Lynch’s memory until the day of his own death.
As Minister of Justice, he engaged in a visceral struggle with the subversive paramilitaries, in particular the IRA, at a very dangerous time.
In 1972, he re-established the Special Criminal Court without a jury to try paramilitary suspects and prevent jury intimidation and witness tampering. Despite the controversy and harsh criticism, he noted in his 2014 memoir, “Unbecoming Conduct”, that the tribunal “has never been abolished”.
O’Malley’s relationship with Haughey, who had been a drinking buddy of his late uncle, Donogh, was still strained.
As a Lynch loyalist, he naturally supported the other leadership contender, George Colley, whom Haughey defeated in December 1979 after Jack Lynch was forced to resign prematurely.
Some O’Malleys, like Colley and his other supporters, believed Haughey was corrupted with too many questions about his seemingly vast personal wealth.
The feuds surrounding the arms crisis of the 1970s left a deep enmity. After numerous disputes and botched anti-Haughey uprisings, he finally left Haughey’s cabinet in 1982.
Then in 1984, after O’Malley challenged the party whip in a vote on contraception law reform, Haughey had him kicked out of the organization-wide Fianna Fáil. “Undignified conduct” – which became the title of his political memoirs – was the offense cited to justify the expulsion.
After months of speculation and false starts, the Progressive Democratic Party was launched on December 21, 1985, with another Fianna Fáil exile, Mary Harney, and Michael McDowell, who had been linked to Fine Gael. For a while, it caused a stir with inaugural meetings filling rooms across the country.
In the general elections of February 1987, he won 14 TD and narrowly missed several other Dáil seats. But their star debut was hard to maintain and by June 1989 they were down to just six TD.
However, the exhausted figures of Charlie Haughey’s Fianna Fáil led to this most unlikely coalition. Things worked pretty well under Haughey, but when Albert Reynolds took over Fianna Fáil in February 1992, relations quickly deteriorated.
Things came to a head when Reynolds later charged O’Malley with “perjury” in a court of inquiry into the beef industry. This coalition crumbled with acrimony at the end of 1994.
He had passed party leadership to Mary Harney in 1993, but was struggling to retire from politics.
O’Malley was embroiled in another brawl in June 1994 when he lost an election to the European Parliament to Pat Cox who had left the Progressive Democrats and ran as independent.
Des O’Malley avoided getting involved in Fianna Fáil’s subsequent coalitions and eventually left politics in 2002. He was then for a time director of the EU-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. London.
His wife, Pat, who supported him in his efforts, died in 2017. The couple had two sons and four daughters, including Fiona O’Malley who was DT and then Senator for the years 2002-2011.
His brother, Joseph O’Malley, was a longtime political editor of the Sunday Independent and his son, Eoin, is a popular political columnist for that newspaper and an associate professor at Dublin City University.