Political tide ‘ebbed away’ from former Tánaiste

Former Labour leader Michael O’Leary, who has died in France, became alienated from politics, writes Paul O’Brien.

MICHEAL O’Leary’s political career was effectively over by the age most politicians are just getting started.

When the Labour Party rejected his electoral strategy in October 1982 — prompting him to resign as leader and join Fine Gael — he was 46.

Fine Gael and Labour formed a coalition that November. But the distrust of Mr O’Leary within both parties meant he would never progress beyond the FG backbenches.

He was centrally involved in talks to form the Progressive Democrats in the mid-1980s and, when the party was established, wished to join. But PD founder Des O’Malley, not wanting the party to become simply a refuge for disaffected members of other parties, vetoed the move.

Widely considered to be disillusioned, Mr O’Leary did not contest the 1987 or 1989 general elections, concentrating instead on developing his career as a barrister and returning to his native Cork. When he stood in 1992, he failed to win a seat. A life away from politics was beckoning.

He became a district court judge in 1997, handling civil cases and preferring to keep a low profile.

He stepped down from the bench last Monday, having turned 70 that day, the statutory age for retirement.

It was the final chapter in a remarkable career.

He was first elected to the Dáil for Labour in 1965, representing the Dublin North-Central constituency, and was re-elected in 1969 and 1973. Labour entered coalition with Fine Gael that year, and Mr O’Leary was appointed minister for labour, a position he held until the government lost power in 1977.

Labour leader Brendan Corish stepped down following the defeat in the election, but Mr O’Leary lost to Frank Cluskey in the contest for control of the party. In 1979, he was selected as an MEP for Dublin, and spent his time shuttling between the Dáil and Europe.

It wasn’t long, however, before the leadership was up for grabs again. When Mr Cluskey lost his seat in the June 1981 General Election, and subsequently resigned, Mr O’Leary was unanimously elected leader.

He formed a coalition with Fine Gael and was appointed Tánaiste and minister for energy. But the coalition was spectacularly short-lived, lasting just nine months. Its collapse would ultimately lead to Mr O’Leary’s doomed pitch to the Labour conference in 1982, and his decision to walk away from the party.

“Had he stayed in Labour, he might have had a different and continuing role in Irish politics,” Dr FitzGerald said yesterday.

But, as Taoiseach Bertie Ahern put it, the political tide simply “ebbed away” from him in the end.

He is survived by his wife Mary.

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