Conduct Unbecoming: A Memoir, by Desmond O’Malley, Gill & Macmillan, 256 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 978-0717162260
Few Irish politicians have chosen to enrich our historiography through leaving behind a commentary on the times in which they lived. When I was elected to Dáil Éireann one could count on the fingers of one hand the number of politicians who had attempted to do so. And in the case of someone like Conor Cruise O’Brien, for example, one suspects that if he had never served in government or Dáil Éireann, his substantial output would have happened anyway. The conventional wisdom then was that the wounds of the Civil War were still too raw to have allowed the revolutionary generation commit to print. Things have certainly improved but, given our literary self-esteem, not as noticeably as might have been expected.
Perhaps this is because of the non-ideological character of so much of our politics since the foundation of the State. Until the banking collapse of 2008 the two-and-a-half party configuration of our politics dominated and was only occasionally, and for brief periods, disturbed by new creations. However none of the new creations ‑ Clann na Talún, Clann na Poblachta, The Workers’ Party or the Progressive Democrats ‑ threatened to displace either the dominance of the two Civil War parties or the hegemony of Fianna Fáil. This dominance meant that Irish politics was principally about government formation and only exceptionally about ideas. In Britain or France, for example, the writings of politicians are partly weapons in the political conflict. Anthony Crosland was only one of several ministers in Harold Wilson’s cabinet who sought to make a political argument between the covers of a book. Dozens of others chose, when passions were spent and battle was over, to record their experience for future generations. I have no doubt that this tradition had a major formative influence on the practice of politics. It is not a tradition that has been overly influential in Ireland.
Des O’Malley would claim that the Progressive Democrats, over the slightly more than the two decades of its existence, “broke the mould” in Irish politics. It is not a claim that is stood up in this valuable book. The financial crisis that began in 2008 rocked our politics and posed an existential challenge to the State’s viability. By comparison, the life and impact of the PDs was almost ephemeral. It was like going to the well for water – once the pail of water is extracted the well fills up again to its original position. And so it was with the PDs. Such erosion as took place in the traction of the two Civil War parties would, in any event, very probably have occurred due to ongoing urbanisation and modernisation. The Progressive Democrats sought to arrest the slide into corruption and authoritarianism evident in Fianna Fáil following the emergence of a new generation whose most prominent personality was Charles Haughey. But, Northern Ireland aside, there was little in the politics of the new party that Haughey and Fianna Fáil could not adopt ‑ which is not to say that the PDs had no impact on our politics; we will come back to that.
Conduct Unbecoming will be of most interest to historians not because of the rationale it offers for the PDs’ economic or social policies but rather for the author’s insight into what might be termed the Arms Crisis years. If the banking collapse of 2008 threatened our economic sovereignty, the Arms Crisis, as O’Malley puts it, “was the greatest internal crisis to hit the State since the Civil War. It was possible,” he says, “not just that the government might collapse but that the State itself might be engulfed in violent turmoil.” It was against this background that the brash thirty-one-year-old Limerick solicitor had been appointed Minister for Justice. “You are young enough to be my grandson” were the welcoming words of the legendary Peter Berry, secretary to the Department of Justice. “You are my thirteenth Minister.” “My goodness you have been around for a long time,” O’Malley replied. “Yes, I have,” Berry said. “My first Minister was Kevin O’Higgins – he was shot you know.”
Whether then taoiseach Jack Lynch could hold the government together was by no means certain. How much did Lynch know about what was going on? As the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland sidelined the very effective campaign of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, was it possible that the Taoiseach of the day was unaware that more forceful personalities in his own cabinet were attempting to import arms for the newly established Provisional IRA? O’Malley goes to considerable lengths to establish that Lynch did not know that the verbal republicanism all around him extended to members of his own Cabinet directly aiding the IRA. The missing link in the chain was Micheál O’Moráin, O’Malley’s predecessor in Justice. O’Moráin was routinely in dereliction of duty but in his sober moments dismissed reports of a plot to import arms and did not, according to O’Malley, bring this information to the attention of Lynch. This apparently caused Mr Berry to take counsel from President de Valera who advised him to bypass his own Minister and go directly to the Taoiseach.
Des O’Malley’s book is interesting in its revelations of how the ageing president was regarded as a “go-to” father figure also for senior Fianna Fáil personalities concerned that the crisis could destroy the party he founded. For example, after another blow-up at cabinet which led to a walkout by Kevin Boland, O’Malley writes:
President De Valera became aware of the walkout. He contacted Boland and talked him out of resigning. He probably thought he was doing the right thing by the Government and by Fianna Fáil in persuading him to stay; but with hindsight I’m not sure it was such a good intervention.
Mr de Valera did not have to contend with Twitter but it’s not difficult to imagine today’s response if senior figures in the Labour Party wanted to involve President Michael D Higgins in discussions about the future of the Labour Party.
It was probably no more than evidence of the hegemonic control that Fianna Fáil enjoyed over Irish politics and public life, which was now threatened by the eruption of violence in Northern Ireland and the overweening ambition of Haughey and others. Elements of the middle class and the professional classes generally were alarmed that apparently having survived “a threat of unparalleled gravity to the Irish State” in the seventies, and economic mismanagement in the eighties the smell of corruption around Haughey demanded a new standard-bearer. And so the Progressive Democrats were born. The new party was responsible on Northern Ireland, conservative economically and liberal on social issues.
It might be going too far to speculate that serious damage would have been done to the state’s institutions and reputation if the Irish people had enabled Haughey to govern without the PDs. But certainly his conduct of government briefly in 1982 gives reasonable grounds for such speculation. It is also fair to say that Haughey instinctively did not favour the neoliberal thrust of the PDs’ economic priorities. But we know now how imperative it was for Haughey to stay in power for personal financial reasons and, without the constraint of another party, he was likely to have done whatever was necessary to woo the electorate to re-elect him.
Des O’Malley was a significant and often controversial politician. He was possessed of a flinty integrity that saw him challenge the drift in Fianna Fáil under Haughey. He took on and pursued issues that other politicians on his side of the political spectrum chose to ignore. The skulduggery in the beef industry and the abuse of a dominant position in that sector was a major scandal. The complacency of the Department of Agriculture about what was going on under their noses was very disturbing. No less disturbing were the decisions being taken across the road in Industry and Commerce concerning the allocation of expensive export credit insurance. While O’Malley was asserting to Haughey in Government Buildings why there must be a public inquiry and therefore accountability, the agriculture minister, Michael O’Kennedy, was in the Dáil laboriously explaining why there would be no such inquiry. O’Kennedy had to inelegantly reverse engines towards the end of the same speech. A piece of paper was handed to him. There would after all be a public inquiry.
The tribunal report, such as it was, exposed “a sorry tale of gross incompetence in public office, of secrecy and deception, including deception of Dáil Éireann, of tax evasion professionally organised on a gigantic scale, of simply theft, of scandalous misuse of EU schemes of great importance to Ireland, of inability to recover taxes of which the Exchequer was cheated by reason of an amnesty sponsored by Fianna Fáil, and of conspiracy by privileged and well-placed persons”.
He intervened and had some influence on matters other than beef. He took on powerful forces inside and outside government to gain some recompense for the State from AIB following the disastrous bailout of ICI. Although government had approved in principle up to £50 million investment in the infamous De Lorean Project, he sided with the IDA and stopped the project.
However it was not his record as an opponent of low standards in high places that endeared O’Malley and the PDs to the professional classes and those with a stake in society. Des O’Malley on economic matters was a thoroughly authentic conservative. The fashion of the day was for neoliberal economics and most observers and practitioners of politics, outside of the PDs themselves, saw the new party as the Irish exponents of the new theology. By the mid-eighties, after two recessions in quick succession, a significant section of middle Ireland was eager to embrace the low-tax, deregulation and small government model.
Although O’Malley records that “the P.D.s had always been defined by the economy, by economic policy”, the economic agenda of the party is not the focus of this book. Historians will have to look elsewhere for analysis of the Progressive Democrats’ economic programme and what contribution, if any, it made to the ultimate crash in 2008. For instance, there is no reference that I can recall to the seminal influence of the PDs in breaking up the traditional prudential role of the Central Bank and creating the dual structure involving the financial regulator. The new structure proved to be entirely inept and incompetent in the discharge of its functions in the years prior to the crash.
The author himself is careful to say that his book is “an impressionistic rendering of a particular time and place … I do not go into lengthy detail that history requires.” Therefore it is the crucible of his time in Justice and how the state avoided being sucked into the maelstrom of unfolding events in Northern Ireland that makes this book such a valuable reference for historians of the future.
Pat Rabbitte is a Labour TD for Dublin South-West and was formerly minister for communications and leader of the Labour Party.