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Des O'Malley campaigning for a Yes vote on the Nice Treaty in 2002.
Des O'Malley campaigning for a Yes vote on the Nice Treaty in 2002.
Image: Gareth Chaney/RollingNews.ie

Former minister and founder of the Progressive Democrats Des O'Malley dies aged 82

O’Malley’s ‘standing by the Republic’ speech is among the most famous ever in the Dáil.
Jul 21st 2021, 10:19 AM 56,199 56

FORMER SENIOR MINISTER and founder of the Progressive Democrats Desmond O’Malley has died at the age of 82. 

The Limerick man was a former Fianna Fáil minister who was expelled from the party following a number of unsuccessful heaves against Charlie Haughey. 

He formed the PDs in 1985 and since their foundation every government in the State has been a coalition government, with the now-defunct PDs themselves members of four. 

O’Malley was one of the country’s foremost politicians in the 1970s and 1980s and was returned as a TD by the people of Limerick at eleven successive elections.

TD Ciaran Cannon, who was also leader of the PDs for a period before the party folded in 2009, tweeted this morning: “Des O’Malley never saw politics as a means to enrichment, but rather a way to serve his country and its people, working in their interests throughout his life.”

Tributes to the late politician have been coming in from across the political spectrum this morning. 

President Michael D Higgins said news of O’Malley’s death will have been received with great sadness by all, and called his contribution to public life “extensive and meaningful”.

“His deep commitment to serving the people of Limerick, to the Republic, and to the parliamentary process, since he was first elected to the Dáil in 1968 stands as an outstanding example of dedicated public service, often delivered under great pressure.”

President Higgins said O’Malley “had a major influence on Irish politics, and his legacy and integrity includes a major contribution to the role of coalitions in Irish government formation.”

“Those of us who had the privilege of working with him in the Oireachtas will also remember him as courteous, courageous and principled. As a friend he was gifted with a wry sense of humour, which he shared with generosity and a gift for irony.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he was deeply saddened by O’Malley’s death.

He said: “His was a life of courage and consequence. He loved his country and was fearless in challenging those who used violence to undermine it. 

“We remember him at the Government meeting today and my thoughts are with his friends and family.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “Des O’Malley was a giant of politics. He broke the mould of Irish politics and left a lasting and positive legacy. May he Rest in Peace.”

Former long-term leader of the PDs and Tánaiste Mary Harney also spoke of her admiration for her political mentor. 

“He spoke the truth and matched it with his actions.  At a very troubled time in our country, his bravery was rare.  He was the finest public servant I have had the privilege to know. May he rest in peace with his beloved wife, Pat.”

Steeped in political history 

His family is steeped in Irish political history with two of his uncles and his father holding the office of Mayor of Limerick. His uncle, Donogh O’Malley, was minister for education and his maternal grandfather was killed during the War of Independence by the Black and Tans

During his 34 years as Dáil representative of the people of Limerick, O’Malley served as a minister in four governments holding a range of portfolios including both defence and industry. 

O’Malley has previously spoken about being armed with a pistol during his tenure as the minister for justice in the early 1970s due to the threat from paramilitaries. 

00114507 Des O'Malley at a press conference in 1982. Source: RollingNews.ie

O’Malley had been brought into government by Fianna Fáil leader Jack Lynch but he is most closely associated with Haughey, Lynch’s successor, as the spats between them had a huge influence on the development of Irish politics. 

O’Malley twice unsuccessfully tried to topple Haughey as Fianna Fáil leader in 1982 and 1983 and was confined to the backbenches. 

He was expelled altogether from the party in February 1985 after he voted for a more liberal law on the sale of contraceptives that Fianna Fáil opposed. His expulsion was later famously described by the party as being for “conduct unbecoming”.

Speaking in the Dáil ahead of the vote, O’Malley pushed his party to allow a free vote on the legislation as a matter of conscience and he delivered one of the most-referenced contributions ever in the house in which he said he was choosing to “stand by the Republic”:

I do not believe that the interests of this State, or our Constitution and of this Republic, would be served by putting politics before conscience in regard to this. There is a choice of a kind that can only be answered by saying that I stand by the Republic and accordingly I will not oppose this Bill.

His vote in favour of liberalised contraception had represented somewhat of a pragmatic or nimble change of viewpoint however, as a decade previously he had opposed similar laws on the grounds that it was the responsibility of  legislators to “deter fornication and promiscuity”.

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This pragmatism is perhaps what allowed him to enter government as Progressive Democrat leader alongside the party that had expelled him. 

After the 1989 general election, the PDs found themselves holding the balance of power when Haughey and Fianna Fáil fell short of a majority.

Albert Reynolds was tasked with negotiating a deal with the PDs but later said he had been opposed to such a coalition from the very start. Upon discovering that Haughey and O’Malley had essentially struck up an agreement behind his back, Reynolds said that “sick” was the only way he could describe it. 

O’Malley said some years later: “I just gritted my teeth and said: ‘We’ll get on with it now and hope it works out.’”

The FF/PD coalition lasted three tumultuous years and would lead to Haughey’s downfall as part of the infamous phone tapping scandal.

fiona-o-malley-progressive-democrats-general-election-campaign-2002 (LtoR) Des O'Malley, Mary Harney and Fiona O'Malley. Source: RollingNews.ie

A general election which followed in 1992 saw Fianna Fáil remaining in government but this time with the support of Labour, who were the big winners under the leadership of Dick Spring. 

O’Malley stepped down from his leadership of the PDs following the election but his successor Mary Harney went on to lead the party into successive governments with Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil. 

O’Malley remained as a TD until his retirement in 2002 when he was succeeded by his cousin Tim O’Malley.

Des O’Malley’s daughter Fiona O’Malley was also elected to the Dáil in that same election and upon losing her seat in 2007 she was appointed to the Seanad by the Taoiseach. 

O’Malley was married to his wife Patricia for 52 years until her death in 2017 and together they had six children.

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Rónán Duffy

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