Desmond O'Malley

From Academic Kids

Desmond (Dessie) Joseph O'Malley (born February 2, 1939), was a senior Fianna Fáil politician, the founder of the Progressive Democrats and the party's first leader (1985-1993). He served as a TD since 1968 and as Minister at the Departments of Justice and Industry & Commerce.

Desmond O'Malley was born on in Limerick City in 1939. He was educated in Limerick and University College Dublin where he qualified as a solicitor in 1962. In 1968 his uncle, Donagh O'Malley who was the then Minister for Education, died suddenly on his way to a function in Ennis, County Clare. The young O'Malley was elected to Dáil Éireann in the subsequent by-election. The new TD shared his uncle's intelligence but was a much more diligent and sober character.


Young Politician

Following the 1969 General Election O'Malley was appointed Government Chief Whip as well as Parliamentary Secretary to an Taoiseach. The Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, noticed early on the ability that lay in O'Malley. From an early stage he was singled out as a possible future leader of the Party and Taoiseach.

In 1970 O'Malley succeeded Micheál Ó Moráin as Minister for Justice, just two days before the revelations of the Arms Crisis became public. During his tenure at Justice O'Malley started to tackle the IRA. He wanted to introduce internment without trial for IRA suspects in the Republic but his plans were scrapped due to the controversial nature of this new legislation.

Fianna Fáil Majority

In 1977 Fianna Fáil received a 23 seat majority in Dáil Éireann following the General Election. The major portfolios were all dominated by Jack Lynch's supporters - George Colley became Minister for Finance, Martin O'Donoghue was appointed Minister for Economic Planning & Development while O'Malley became Minister for Industry and Commerce. O'Malley worked well and was well suited to the challenge of his portfolio, the proposed Carnsore Point nuclear plant was, however, a low point.

Two years later in 1979 Lynch resigned as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil. Two candidates contested the leadership, George Colley and Charles Haughey. O'Malley and O'Donoghue managed Colley's campaign, however, neither of them new that most of the backbench TDs were going to vote for Haughey. haughey was in fact the eventual winner. In the days after the ballot Colley, O'Malley and O'Donoghue considered whether they would even vote for Haughey's nomination as Taoiseach. However when it came to it all three voted for Haughey. Colley and O'Malley retained their positions in the Cabinet. Martin O'Donoghue and his department were scrapped.

Opposition to Haughey

Following the 1982 General Election Fianna Fáil, led by Haughey, failed to win an overall majority in the Dáil. The party met a few days later to discuss the issue of the leadership of the Party and the nomination for Taoiseach. Haughey was seen as the main reason for the failure to win a victory. George Colley dropped his own claims to the succession and threw all of his support behind O'Malley who was seen as a more acceptable candidate to a deeply divided Party and electorate. When the meeting was held a vote on the leadership wasn't taken and O'Malley withdrew his challenge. Some of his key supporters, including Martin O'Donoghue, urged him to back out at the last minute. He had no choice but to concede. Haughey was elected Taoiseach and O'Malley was still appointed to the Cabinet as Minister for Trade, Commerce and Tourism.

In October 1, 1982 another challenge to Haughey was initiated, this time by the Kildare TD, Charlie McCreevy. McCreevy, although he supported Haughey grew disillusioned with his economic policies and put down a motion of no confidence in the leader. O'Malley was on holiday in Spain at the time but rushed back to join the campaign. He disagreed with the timing of the challenge but had no choice but to put his own name forward as a possible alternative to Haughey. On the morning of the vote O'Malley and his supporters resigned from the Cabinet due to the fact that they were goinhg to vote against Haughey. After the meeting that went on all day and all night Haughey won an open vote by 58 votes to 22.

In 1983 a new Fine Gael-Labour government was in power. The Minister for Justice, Michael Noonan, revealed that the last government was involved in the tapping of certain journalists telephones. Haughey was implicated in the scandal because it occurred during his tenure as Taoiseach. This time it looked as if the game was up and that he would resign. The race to succeed him began with O'Malley, Gerard Collins, Michael O'Kennedy, Brian Lenihan and John P. Wilson all showing an interest in the post of Party leader, even while Haughey was still in power On February 7, 1983 Fianna Fáil met to debate the issue. The report into the telephone tapping was read out and it cleared Haughey from any wrong-doing and put more blame on Martin O'Donoghue than the other TDs involved. His opponents were sceptical and were determined to push the issue to a secret ballot. A vote was taken however Haughey carried the day by winning 40 votes to 33.

With Haughey now completely in control of the Party O'Malley and his supporters became disillusioned. George Colley died in 1983 and O'Donoghue was no longer a TD. O'Malley also became isolated within Fianna Fáil with many of his supporters giving up hope of ever beating Charlie Haughey.

Expulsion from Fianna Fáil

In May 1984 the New-Ireland Forum Report was published. Haughey was a key figure in the Forum and agreed to several possible solutions for solving the problem of Northern Ireland. However when the report became public Haughey backtracked and said the only possible solution was a United Ireland. This statement was criticised by the other leaders who forged the New-Ireland Forum, namely Garret FitzGerald, Dick Spring and John Hume. O'Malley strongly criticised Haughey's position and accused him of stifling debate. At a meeting of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party to discuss the report the whip was removed from O'Malley and he was no longer a Fianna Fáil TD, being forced to sit on the Independent TD benches along with another Fianna Fáil exile Neil Blaney.

In early 1985 a bill was introduced by the Fine Gael-Labour government to liberalise the sale of contraceptives in the country. Fianna Fáil opposed the bill for the sheer sake of opposing it. O'Malley considered it a matter of conscience over anything else and wanted to support it. On the day of the vote O'Malley delivered an electrifying speech in the Dáil chamber. He said:

The politics of this would be very. The politics would be to be one of the lads, the safest way in Ireland. But I don 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.

O'Malley left his Fianna Fáil colleagues squirming in their seats as he completely dismantled their argument. When it came to a vote he abstained rather than cross the floor and vote with the government. Haughey wasn't going to let this slide. On February 26, 1985 O'Malley was summoned to a Party meeting and was charged with 'conduct unbecoming.' Following a roll-call vote O'Malley was expelled from the Fianna Fáil organisation by 73 votes to 9. After three attempts by O'Malley to oust Haughey, Haughey had finally won and was in complete control of the Party. At the age of 46 it looked as if O'Malley's political career was over.

The Progressive Democrats

Immediately after O'Malley's expulsion he was contacted by a young Fine Gael activist named Michael McDowell. He encouraged O'Malley to found a new political party and offered any help he could give. On December 21, 1985 O'Malley announced publicly for the first time the formation of the Progressive Democrats. Several Fianna Fáil TDs joined including Mary Harney and Bobby Molloy. Within a few weeks the Party numbers swelled and tens of thousands of pounds were collected in donations.

In the 1987 General Election the Progressive Democrats won 14 seats making it the third biggest party in the Dáil. Among the TDs elected were O'Malley and his cousin wife Pat, Anne Colley, daughter of George Colley, Jim Gibbons, son of the former Fianna Fáil Minister of the same name and Martin Cullen. Fianna Fáil returned to power with Haughey as head of a minority government.

Coalition with Fianna Fáil

In May 1989 Haughey made one of his biggest political mistakes. He called an early General Election in the hope of winning an overall majority. When the results came in Fianna Fáil actually lost seats. The PDs lost 8 seats but they still held the balance of power. Haughey had failed to be elected Taoiseach in the Dáil vote with O'Malley's PDs voting for Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes. After Haughey formally resigned he entered into negotiations with the PDs about forming a coalition. The vast majority of Haughey's Cabinet were vehemently opposed to any coalition deal but Haughey was desperate for power. On July 5, 1989 Haughey and O'Malley agreed a deal for government. In the new Cabinet O'Malley was appointed Minister for Industry & Commerce.

In 1990 the Fianna Fáil nominee in the Presidential Election was Brian Lenihan, a hugely popular figure in politics. A few weeks before the election a scandal broke surrounding Lenihan and the accusation that he phoned President Hillery in 1982 asking him not to dissolve Garret FitzGerald's government. Lenihan had always denied this but now new evidence had come to light. O'Malley was very concerned over this and the effect it would have on the coalition. He met with Haughey and indicated that Lenihan would have to leave the Cabinet if the PDs were to stay on in government. Haughey then terminated Lenihan's membership of the government.

In early 1992 the programme for government was up for renewal by both Parties. When it was revealed by Seán Doherty that Haughey had authorised the tapping of two journalists telephones in 1982 O'Malley decided that the PDs could no longer remain in a government led by Haughey. Haughey eventually resigned on February 11, 1992 and was replaced by Albert Reynolds. O'Malley and the PDs continued in government until the 'Beef Tribunal.' When Reynolds accused O'Malley of being 'dishonest' while giving evidence the Progressive Democrats immediately withdrew from the government and a General Election was called. Fianna Fáil returned to power in coalition with Labour. The Progressive Democrats were now confined to the Opposition benches.


In October 1993 O'Malley retired as leader of the Progressive Democrats. He was succeeded by Mary Harney, one of the co-founders. In 1994 O'Malley ran for the European Parliament but was defeated by his fellow PD candidate Pat Cox. He remained on as a TD until his complete retirement from politics at the 2002 General Election. His daughter, Fiona O'Malley, was elected to the Dáil as a PD candidate continuing the O'Malley dynasty that has lasted since 1954.

Vehemently opposed to Charles Haughey's leadership throughout his political career, Des O'Malley is regarded as a lost leader and the best Taoiseach that never was.

Political Career

Preceded by:
Michael Carty
Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach
Succeeded by:
David Andrews
Preceded by:
Micheál Ó Moráin
Minister for Justice
Succeeded by:
Patrick Cooney
Preceded by:
Justin Keating
Minister for Industry & Commerce
Succeeded by:
John Kelly
Preceded by:
John Kelly
Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism
Succeeded by:
Pádraig Flynn
Preceded by:
Newly Created Party
Leader of the Progressive Democrats
Succeeded by:
Mary Harney
Preceded by:
Ray Burke
Minister for Industry & Commerce
Succeeded by:
Pádraig Flynn

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