A MINISTER for Justice who slept with a gun under his pillow, the very nemesis of Charles Haughey and the founder of a political party that exercised influence way beyond its size throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Des O’Malley wasn’t struggling for material for his book Conduct Unbecoming: A Memoir.
Much of O’Malley’s career was defined by his enmity with a certain former taoiseach, an era that was revisited in the recent RTÉ mini-series, Haughey. O’Malley feels it was a relatively fair exploration of the time.
“You have to take it as a drama, rather than a factual documentary, but a great deal of it is factual. It is of course based on fact but, for dramatic purposes, certain things are written into it and the chronology of some of the things changes, they happened in a different order. But I thought it was a fair enough representation of the atmosphere at the time, the atmosphere of fear and intimidation.”
One thing in the TV show that did not actually happen was O’Malley using a sword to protect Jim Gibbons, he says laughing, but he was pleased with the generally sympathetic view of himself presented in the programme.
What might be called the Haughey era is now generally viewed as a time of unparalleled corruption. O’Malley is quite blunt in stating that the popular view is quite correct.
“Whatever problems of that kind you think are there today, they’re a lot less than they were then. Things happened then of that nature that certainly had never happened before and wouldn’t have been tolerated at all in earlier periods. They were very serious; I deal with some of them in the book but by no means all because it was very widespread. The two areas that I deal with mainly are the Arms Crisis, first of all and the problems that existed in the beef industry. Of course, there were various others too that I don’t go into in the book in great detail. One of them, for example, is the question of the sale of passports to foreigners.”
While there might be a view that society, generally, moves in the right direction, he feels there was a serious regression during his own career, with Haughey and his acolytes behaving in a way that would not have been acceptable under other post-independence leaders.
“If you take someone like De Valera, he wouldn’t have countenanced any deviation from the straight and narrow. The same would have been true of people like the Cosgraves or Jack Costello.”
While it might seem excessive to blame the corruption that defined Irish politics on one man, he feels that most of it really was down to Haughey’s malign influence. “I would. I think a lot of it stemmed from him because he gave examples to others that he was able to get away with things and they felt if he is able to, why can’t we get away with it?”
He believes the media were gutless when it came to challenging Haughey, despite his very public flaunting of wealth. “I found that even if you told members of the media certain things at that time, their reaction was, can you prove it beyond all reasonable doubt? They seemed to be very frightened of the libel laws. I tried to explain to people at the time, without great success, that you didn’t have to be guilty of a criminal offence to be unsuitable for high office. They didn’t seem to accept that; they seemed to think that unless you were convicted of a criminal offence, you shouldn’t be questioned at all. That isn’t, in my opinion, the way to approach things if someone has a significant, important public office.”
He shares the view that Haughey had a lot of ability, which he largely misused.
“I’ve written about him fairly extensively in the book because he was central to much of my career, perhaps in a negative way, but he was central anyway. I recognise that he had great talent and I lament the fact that much of that talent got abused and used for his own advancement rather than for the country’s advancement, which I think is a great pity. If that talent had been used more carefully I think he would have made a huge contribution to this country because he was well capable of it. He was one of the ablest people of his generation.”
A target for the Provos, O’Malley had to spend a number of years with round-the-clock security and was trained in using firearms.
“You kind of adapt to these things when they happen, you have to put up with it. It was difficult at the time and unpleasant, when it had never happened to you before. Or indeed hadn’t happened to anyone in Irish life for a good while, perhaps during the war was the last time it would have occurred.”
When he was in Limerick during that period, one of those who guarded him was Garda Jerry McCabe. “Himself and Ben O’Sullivan used to come around with me for five or six years when I was in Limerick; I had different people in Dublin, of course. They drove me a lot and I got very friendly with the two of them, that’s why it was such an awful shock to hear when McCabe was killed and O’Sullivan was nearly killed; in fact, so near that I think he still has a bullet in him that they’re afraid to take out because they think it might do more damage if they did.
“It’s a horrible thought that someone that you knew well over a period of years ended up like that for doing his duty.”
Less than 20 years later, opinion polls show Sinn Féin as being the most popular party in the State and Gerry Adams, party leader then and now, is being talked about as a possible Taoiseach.
O’Malley is unimpressed by their rise and wishes voters would bear in mind the party’s dark past. “I’m pretty shocked by it really [the jump in SF support]. I don’t think that an awful lot of younger people realise what went on from 1969 up to the late 1990s. It’s a sick and sorry record of violence and murder and so on. People should be slow to forget.”
When O’Malley set up the PDs after being expelled from Fianna Fáil, it was the biggest game changer in Irish politics for many years. Within two years, they were in power, holding 14 seats.
The party continued to wield influence throughout the ’90s and the ’00s, holding seats in Cabinet through coalition with Fianna Fáil. Its subsequent disappearance was an obvious disappointment to him but he believes it had brought about the changes that he had hoped it would.
“I feel it had achieved its initial purpose anyway and it changed a lot of things in the 1980s and ’90s that wouldn’t have been changed without it. It is disappointing that it petered out in the way that it did principally, I think, due to the fact that it was in government for too long and for a continuous period. It’s much better to alternate between government and opposition, particularly if you’re a smaller party, in my opinion, because you remain more rooted in reality. If you’re in government over a long period, you lose touch a bit and I think that’s what happened.”
While he is proud of what the PDs did, he feels there is no chance of a new party making anything like the same impact now because of how politics is funded.
“The legacy is that it [the PDs] showed things can be changed, particularly by a new party. What’s disappointing, in particular, is the fact that it may be the last new party to have a significant influence. Any changes that will take place in the future will have to take place within existing parties because it’s now more difficult to start a party and we’ve seen examples of that over the last few years, where various people have tried and haven’t succeeded.”
Private funding of parties is quite restricted, while most of the money now comes from the exchequer, under a system that gives an advantage to the established parties.
“The public funding was justified by those who brought it in on the grounds that corruption took place on such a wide scale, particularly in the 1980s and to a lesser extent in the ’90s. A better way to approach it would be to stamp out the corruption, rather than to try and side-step it by introducing public funding.”
* Des O’Malley will be part of the Ennis Book Club Festival’s Sunday Symposium at Glór on March 8 at 10am. Entitled Politics and Pathology – Life Inside the Political Tent, it also includes DCU’s Dr Gary Murphy, RTÉ’s Katie Hannon and The Irish Examiner’s Mick Clifford. It will be chaired by Caimin Jones.
By Owen Ryan