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Opinion: Farewell to Des O'Malley - a true republican and patriot

Jason O’Mahony pays tribute to founder of the PDs and former senior minister, Des O’Malley, who died yesterday.

Jason O'Mahony

Updated Jul 22nd 2021, 11:00 AM

THE FIRST TIME I met Des O’Malley was at the Progressive Democrat national conference in 1992.

I was 19, and star-struck. This was Des O’Malley, one of the Big Four (Haughey, Fitzgerald, Spring and O’Malley) who had defined Irish politics throughout the 1980s.

This was the guy who had faced down the Provos in the 70s, squared up to Haughey, and made one of the greatest speeches of modern Irish politics defining a new set of values.

I was disappointed.

He was smaller than I expected, but that wasn’t it. He was shy to the point of awkward, which is fine except for the fact that I too am shy to the point of awkward, and so we were introduced and both awkwardly mumbled at each other for a moment until Michael McDowell (who has never suffered from a surplus of shyness) whisked him away to meet someone else.

That was him? That was the great Des O’Malley of “Dessie Can Do It” fame?

Later on, I saw him speak, and yes, that was him alright, Des O’Malley the man for whom a speech can be not as much a chore as most pols today think of them but the means of communicating and spreading an idea.

The man, it turned out, could speak.

Inspiration

I joined the Progressive Democrats because of Des O’Malley, and it’s hard today for people to realise how important a figure he was. The choices available in Irish politics were dire: FF, FG and Labour had no ideas other than to just keep increasing taxes and borrowing and hope that somehow the country’s problems would go away.

Corruption in local government was widespread, and the taxpayer existed to serve the public sector.

But what was worse about it all was that you could maybe even justify all that if you got good public services. But you didn’t. Telecom Eireann existed primarily for the benefit of its employees. Same with Aer Lingus. And both FF and FG were paralysed by their conservative wings on divorce, abortion and contraception. Ireland still had the death penalty.

In the North, an endless cycle of violence followed by condemnation went on and on.

The PDs under O’Malley certainly made progress on tax reform, and privatisation. They also set up the EPA, got rid of Dublin’s smog problem (yes, it did) and abolished the death penalty.

Des O’Malley set out a new stall of ideas, but more importantly, he made Fianna Fáil enter coalition, which transformed Irish politics. It’s hard for people now to grasp what a big deal that was, and not just by making FF concede cabinet seats.

Coalition with FF in 1989 revealed an inherent flaw in the party: that its obsession with holding office made it vulnerable to contamination by its coalition partners: it swung right in coalition with the PDs and left in coalition with Labour, flavoured by the MiWadi of its coalition partners. There’s a lesson there for the future with Sinn Féin.

The Speech

Then, of course, there’s The Speech. Standing By The Republic means nothing to most people under 35, but even as a teenager reading it I remember being blown away by it.

Don’t forget, this was a country where we were watching bootleg illegal copies of The Life of Brian and where condoms needed a doctor’s prescription and a marriage cert, and when the Guards were raiding the Virgin Megastore to confiscate condoms. Where it was a criminal offence to be gay.

Then a man stood up in the national parliament and said we don’t live in Iran and maybe we should let people make up their own minds about this sort of thing. And proceeded to be expelled by Charlie Haughey because O’Malley was bringing down the tone of Fianna Fáil.

It was a moment because we all knew it was bollocks. Being lectured by Charlie on rubber johnnies, a man who seemed to own a substantial part of the national reserve of said items was really taking the piss.

There’s a fabulous line in the speech about how easy it would be to just be one of the lads, to just shut up and go along with the hypocrisy. O’Malley could have done that, remained quiet and stayed in cabinet under Haughey, as many did. But he didn’t, and that’s what made him different.

One thing outsiders forget about the Progressive Democrats was that it was quite small as a party. A good party conference probably had about a thousand attendees, and that made it much more intimate.

Accessible

You got to meet and drink and sing with the party mucky-mucks easily, and as a result, it felt as much like a large extended family as a political party, with Des as the patriarch, Mary Harney as the matriarch, Bobby Molloy as the uncle and Cox O’Donnell and McDowell as the troublemaking kids.

Everybody in the party did a Des O’Malley impersonation, and there was a fair bit of good-natured joshing which I suspect was not the case in the Mugabesque corridors of FF at the time.

There’s a story that used to be told about a meeting of the parliamentary party. It was completely untrue, but continued to do the rounds, and was how Des O’Malley’s Limerick East constituency colleague Peadar Clohessy had been appointed party defence spokesperson, and he’d gone off and prepared a defence policy with great gusto.

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The policy, it was said, included such gems as turning the army into Michael Collins-style flying columns to be able to rapidly deploy around the country, and also that the Aer Corps should equip their (then) new Dauphin helicopters with Exocet anti-ship missiles to show Spanish trawlers we were serious about illegal incursions into our waters.

This, the story went, sent the parliamentary party into convulsions of laughter, after which Des thumped the desk and declared “You won’t be laughing when the Russians hold Portlaoise!”

One thing we all could have been sure of.

If the Russians had indeed taken Portlaoise, there was no question that Des O’Malley, republican and patriot, would have done his patriotic duty.

Sleep well chief.

Jason O’Mahony is a political activist, blogs at www.Jasonomahony.ie , and was once a member of the Progressive Democrats.  

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