I got to know him very slightly in later life, and (somewhat to my surprise) I found him thoroughly likeable. In political debate, he was always abrasive — never looking for quarter nor giving any. In person, he was affable, warm, and funny.
Incidentally, I suspect Des O’Malley would have appreciated the irony in the fact that the President who arrived at his funeral was Michael D Higgins, whom O’Malley predicted “would go mad in office” when he heard that Michael D was likely to be appointed to the cabinet in 1992.
If anyone was drawing up a list of the most respected and personally influential politicians in Ireland in the second half of the 20th century, there is no doubt whatever that Des O’Malley would be high on the list. Some were more influential than he, for good or ill, but few had more personal integrity.
And he had courage, especially when it was needed. I wasn’t quite 20 when O’Malley was appointed minister for justice, but I know it was by far the most dangerous job in Irish politics, one that required physical courage and nerves of steel. O’Malley had both in abundance.
Later, he demonstrated a huge amount of political courage in standing up to Charles Haughey. I was much more involved in politics by then and remember some of those confrontations very well.
He believed Haughey was dangerous and corrupt and, although he never quite said it in so many words, he was the effective leader of Haughey’s internal opposition.
He lost the Fianna Fáil whip, of course, over the New Ireland Forum, when Haughey deliberately chose to misrepresent its conclusions as representing only one possible outcome, that of a united Ireland.
Haughey’s determination to get rid of him was illustrated best by the grounds on which he succeeded in expelling O’Malley from the party. When you look back now, it’s hard to imagine a more innocuous piece of legislation than Barry Desmond’s Family Planning Bill. Haughey had earlier brought in legislation to allow married couples to buy condoms (you could be asked to produce your marriage certificate).
Desmond proposed to allow adults, pure and simple, to buy condoms. Fianna Fáil opposed the reform, and O’Malley was expelled for refusing to oppose it. (He didn’t actually vote for it either — after his famous “I stand by the Republic” speech in the debate, he abstained on the vote.)
Both of those things, the New Ireland Forum and the debate about contraceptives, also showed how O’Malley’s views were capable of change. Earlier in his career he was very much a United Ireland man, although always implacably opposed to violence. And he had earlier opposed any liberalisation of the law on contraceptives because such things could promote “fornication and promiscuity”.
O’Malley made a remarkable contribution to his country. He was steadfast, gutsy, incorruptible.
He will be mourned and missed. The party he founded however, not so much.
I don’t want to sound ungracious, but the Progressive Democrats were never the progressive force in Irish life O’Malley wanted them to be. Since his sad death, there has been far too much over-claiming about what his party stood for and achieved.
Did they break the mould of Irish politics? No they didn’t.
In one election, in 1987, it looked like they might. They beat the Labour Party (who had just had a torrid time in Government) into third place, and they looked for a little while as if they could mount a serious challenge to Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. But they never put down roots.
Their success in 1987 was followed by a collapse in their vote in 1989. In the local elections of 1991 — their first local elections — they ran a desultory campaign and won less than 40 seats out of nearly 900. And that was even though FF and FG also lost seats in those elections, with the Labour Party making a strong recovery.
Their failure to build on their initial strong showing was a failure of organisation and led ultimately to the PDs being more of a flash in the pan than a serious political party.
They did perhaps break the mould in another way though, or at least helped the mould to shift.
After Haughey and Reynolds, and under the leadership of the arch-pragmatist Bertie Ahern (who once described himself as the only socialist in the Dáil) Fianna Fáil finally became an ideological party. But the ideology wasn’t Ahern’s, it belonged to his finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, and to the PDs, especially its loudest voices, Mary Harney and Michael McDowell.
Between them, they dragged Fianna Fáil and Irish politics to the right. Years of disinvestment in public services followed, accompanied by endless campaigns for privatisation of State companies. Although they have claimed the credit for the Celtic Tiger years, in reality they spent most of their time hollowing out the tax base to such an extent that when the property boom imploded, there was nothing left.
Apart from that, the PDs were a collection of large, and competing, egos. Their MEP, Pat Cox, having originally been willing to give Des O’Malley a free run at a European seat after O’Malley had stepped down as leader, ended up leaving the party in order to deprive O’Malley of the seat. McDowell was so convinced of his own divine right to rule that he made life miserable for Harney until eventually she threw in the towel.
Perhaps the least said about McDowell’s tenure as leader the better. He added colour and was a brilliant speaker and polemicist, but in the end he brought his party down one of those spirals from which there is no coming back.
Along the way he succeeded in changing the Irish constitution to ensure that the automatic right of everyone born in Ireland to be a citizen of the country was taken away from them.
That’s some legacy.
In the end, the PDs may be remembered for introducing Fianna Fáil to the notion of ideology. They sought to move Ireland to the right, and our country has yet to recover from that experiment. It has to be admitted that they added a dash of excitement to the political mix — especially in the early days — but ultimately, the party was a profound failure.
As for Des O’Malley, it used to be said of him that he was the best taoiseach Ireland never had. I don’t think he would have agreed with that himself, although he would undoubtedly have rescued his own party from a decade of unhealthy relationships with big business and big builders.
In the end, his legacy is deep, honourable, and personal. He was perhaps too independent a spirit to be a successful party leader, but it was that independence that earned him huge respect. He always did what he thought was the right thing to do, no matter how difficult it was. And he’ll always be remembered for that.