Memoir, like the man, gets right to the point

Unlike many other recent political memoirs, this book pulls few punches and is an authentic transcription of the acuity, caustic manners and occasional bias of the man, writes Gerard Howlin

Memoir, like the man, gets right to the point

Conduct Unbecoming: A Memoir by Des O’Malley, a collation of “mere impressions, not history”, is like its author pungent and to the point. O’Malley was infamously expelled by Fianna Fáil for ‘conduct unbecoming’ in the aftermath of his ‘I stand by the Republic’ speech.

Already excluded from the parliamentary party, he refused to follow Charlie Haughey in voting against then health minister Barry Desmond’s liberalisation of contraception in 1985. Haughey who cast him out, lived on, never to secure an overall majority and eventually only to be in government at all, in coalition with O’Malley and his Progressive Democrats. That famous speech was both the author’s call for a liberal republic and philosophically the basis for the PDs.

This book is as much a perspective on others, especially Haughey, as a self-accounting by O’Malley.

Unlike much recent Irish political memoirs, long in comparison to what it has to offer and coy about what it has to tell, O’Malley’s book is an authentic transcription of the acuity, caustic manners and occasionally the bias of the man. The events which pivoted on the title of this memoir were far in the future, when its author was first elected to the Dáil in 1968. This book reaches nearly half its length before O’Malley left the Department of Justice in 1973, at the age of 34, to sit on the opposition benches for the first time. This period, in his account, encompassing the arms trial and violence in Northern Ireland, was a defining time.

“A bit gruff” in his own words, in fact downright rude on occasion, O’Malley has the decency not to spare himself. Admissions of failure as a rugby player, a budding actor, that he was “spectacularly inexperienced” on becoming a minister, and when subsequently and reluctantly a councillor he “failed to achieve anything” is becoming self-awareness. In-part a Coriolanus character, who arrived almost instantly at the top of Irish politics, he never subsequently acquired a capacity for either the mundanity or dissimulation, usually acquired by those who crawl their way to the summit, instead of being parachuted onto it.

His father, a solicitor, was three times mayor of Limerick, an honour held by two of his O’Malley uncles, including Donogh who later as minister for education introduced free secondary education. The author’s frankness begins with his own family, and his regard for his famous uncle is not unstinting. Donogh gave his father “a lot of trouble” but who by the time of his premature death “was becoming more effective”.

It was into the era typified by those two men, then possessed of potential neither was destined to fulfil, that Donogh’s nephew Des was first elected in the by-election caused by his premature death.

Within a year the taoiseach Jack Lynch made him chief whip and 10 months later in May 1970, in extraordinary circumstances, minister for justice. Stepping literally into the breach, as the events of the arms trial and Northern Ireland Troubles exploded, O’Malley at the cabinet table as chief whip knew there was no policy decision to import arms, to be shipped on to nationalists in Northern Ireland. Chosen by Lynch at a perilous moment, when the actions of Blaney and Haughey constituted “treason in a moral sense” his tenure at Justice was more critical than at any time since the foundation of the State. There was unprecedented tumult within Fianna Fáil at large and specifically treachery in government. Abetted by Unionist intransience in Northern Ireland and the feral nationalism of the Provisional IRA, events burst open.

Haughey and Blaney were sacked by a determined and in O’Malley’s telling “calm” Lynch; Kevin Boland “a bag of noise”, resigned in sympathy. It is O’Malley’s astute observation that while that trio shared a grudge against Lynch, they fundamentally did not trust each other, and rapidly went their separate ways thereafter. They had, however, helped to stir-up and hoped to profit politically from violent nationalism. It would be quarter of a century before there was to be a first effective, but not final, truce.

O’Malley’s version of his tenure under intense political pressure and, serious threat of assassination, is an important account. His relationship with Lynch, Paddy Hillery, the difficult, patriotic and enormously important Secretary of the Department of Justice Peter Berry, the shenanigans of Harold Wilson in Dublin meeting with the IRA are tales of a time when it was unclear if the institutions of the state could withstand the pressures within and without. That they did, is largely down to Jack Lynch and O’Malley is fulsome in his praise of his leader’s judgment and character. In turn, Lynch in Paddy Hillery and Des O’Malley was well served too, and so was the State.

O’Malley’s account of the subsequent resurgence of Charlie Haughey is fascinating. Justifiably appalled by the poisonous effect of Haughey on politics over 30 years, his repeated suborning of the State to his political interests first in the events that led to the arms trial and subsequently, as retailed by his own Minister for Justice Sean Doherty, in using An Garda Síochána to tap journalists phones and that likely only the tip of an iceberg, and his use of office for personal profit as evidenced in the McCracken Tribunal, O’Malley never systematically applied himself to winning the loyalty of his then parliamentary colleagues in Fianna Fáil. Prepared to risk assignation, fearless in standing up for his principles, he too-seldom suffered fools.

On Albert Reynolds O’Malley allows his bias better his judgment. Scarifying about a man who “politically and intellectually” was not “up to being taoiseach” and in relation to flawed decisions that were the subject of the Beef Tribunal, he fails to acknowledge Reynolds’ achievement at all in brokering the peace process.

Reynolds’ accusation, on oath, at the Beef Tribunal that O’Malley had effectively committed perjury, was outrageous. His political responsibility for the collapse of two governments within three years is damning. But warts and all, he merits one signal acknowledgement which O’Malley ungenerously fails to offer.

“I was most content when Jack Lynch was leader of Fianna Fáil” is O’Malley’s summary of his own political life. His achievement in facing down Haughey, and beginning the end of a political culture that was more rotten for a longer time than many appreciated, is immense. A young student then who left Fianna Fáil and joined the PDs in 1985, I recall the charisma and stature of a man who ranks still in my judgment as one of the few in politics whose reputation hasn’t tarnished with time. “Well fuck you anyway” was Haughey’s riper riposte when O’Malley resigned from government in 1982 . “I didn’t think you’d have the guts to do it.”

O’Malley has guts, but perhaps less guile. The frankness of this book suggests that age has not wearied him. As an author, his lack of tack, has translated into an asset.

  • Gerard Howlin was a founder member of the PDs and a special adviser to Fianna Fáil in government 1997-2007. Conduct Unbecoming A Memoir: Des O’Malley is published by Gill & Macmillan, 24.99

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