Oidhreacht an pholaiteora, Des O ‘Malley ar Chloch le Carn

Tuesday 29th March, 7.00pm

For many, in a career that spanned 34 years, he was the greatest Taoiseach we never had. Cloch le Carn pays tribute to politician and statesman Des O’Malley.

For many Des O’Malley was the greatest Taoiseach we ever had. From the time he entered politics at 29 years of age in 1968 up until his retirement in 2002, he maintained the reputation as someone with integrity and courage, someone who wasn’t afraid to stand up to those he believed were not working in the nation’s interest. He had a healthy respect for his own abilities and knew his limitations, and though he had ambition, quite often that ambition was tempered by what he felt was needed for the greater good. Cloch le Carn looks at a remarkable career during one of the most turbulent periods of Irish politics with contributions from his son Eoin O’Malley and former colleagues Mary Harney and Máire Geoghan Quinn.

Des O ‘Malley

Des O’Malley was born into a family steeped in politics in Limerick, and circumstance saw him follow his family’s path sooner than he expected when his uncle Donagh O’Malley passed away suddenly in 1968. Two years later he became the youngest Minister for Justice in the history of the state. The arms crisis in 1970 saw Taoiseach Jack Lynch turn to his young chief whip, and over the next few years O’Malley’s tough stance on Northern Ireland saw him re-introduce the special criminal courts and both he and his family lived under constant threat, with Des having to carry a gun and change address frequently.

His wife Patricia and 4 children (soon to grow to 6) were left isolated in Limerick as politics kept Des almost full time in Dublin. That pattern didn’t change over the years, and he often talked to his political colleagues about the regrets he had for what he put his family through. His son Dr Eoin O’Malley, associate professor of politics in DCU, talks openly and honestly about a father he didn’t know, a grumpy individual who was lucky to have his mother, “a much nicer person”, who was able to maintain a presence in his constituency in Limerick. Eoin recalls that his father would ring her every evening to talk through the day and how she would listen and give counsel when it was needed.

Eoin’s assertion is that his father never really wanted to become a Taoiseach. His greatest political ally Mary Harney agrees with that but feels that Ireland would have benefitted greatly from having someone ‘who stood by the republic’ at the helm. Both herself and Máire Geoghan Quinn, watched one of the great political rivalries play out in front of them. Charlie Haughey stayed on the backbenches after being fired from Jack Lynch’s cabinet in the early 70’s, but by 1979 he was ready to come in from the cold. Máire Geoghan Quinn talks of being summoned to Des O’Malley’s office where he let her know in no uncertain terms that he might have sided with Haughey if it wasn’t for what had happened during the arms crisis.

Haughey won the vote and over the next few turbulent years there were many heaves against his leadership of Fianna Fáil. Des became the name associated with an alternative, but when he abstained to vote the party’s way on the subject of contraception, Haughey finally found a way to oust Dessie. He could never have expected that two years later in 1987, Des’s new party the Progressive Democrats would win 14 seats at the general election. To make matters worse in 1989 Haughey had to eat humble pie and break with tradition and form the first Fianna Fáil coalition with the PD’s. 4 years later O’Malley was stepping down as leader of the party he formed.

When Des O’Malley retired in 2002 he had never lost a general election. Mary Harney accepts that the arms crisis and the aftermath did play a major part in his political life, but she refuses to accept that it defined him. His greatest achievement as she sees it was the partnership he had with his wife Patricia until her in death in 2017, and the children that looked after him until his death last year at the age of 82.

Cloch le Carn, RTÉ ONE Dé Máirt at 7pm

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