Dessie O’Malley: who he was and what he did

 I never met Dessie O’Malley, who died yesterday. When we were on a family holiday in Connemara, I once glimpsed him in a hotel, talking animatedly and cheerfully to a group of admirers. You didn’t need a potted biography to know that this was a man who had known political power. 

I did know his future wife Patricia McAleer, who went to the Loreto Convent with my sisters in Omagh. His brother-in-law-to-be, Peter McAleer was in my primary school class in the Omagh Christian Brothers, and once explained to me that the initials of the RUC stood for Rough Ugly and go on, guess.

There have been many accolades to O’Malley since news of his death.

Leo Varadkar said “Des O’Malley was a giant of politics. He broke the mould of Irish politics and left a lasting and positive legacy. May he Rest in Peace.”

Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea said “He was straight as an arrow with no hint of corruption ever. “

Colum Eastwood of the SDLP said “He was a true statesman”.

Micheál Martin was fulsome in his admiration: “As a TD, Minister and Party Leader he represented the people of Limerick and our country as a whole with determination and a commitment to making Ireland a better place. As Minister for Justice he dedicated himself to facing down an illegitimate campaign of violence that directly targeted the institutions of the State.”

Like many other Irish politicians, he came into politics when a near relative, in his case his uncle, Donogh O’Malley, died suddenly. Dessie O’Malley became Minister for Justice and introduced the Offences Against The State Act, which meant anyone could be convicted of IRA membership if a Garda Superintendent said so. He also introduced the Special Criminal Court, which consisted of three judges and no jury. He broke away from Fianna Fail in 1985 and founded the Progressive Democrats, thus giving the south of Ireland, as a Dublin friend of mine remarked at the time, three right-wing parties. In 2008 the party had no TDs in the Dáil and was formally dissolved by O’Malley.

It is customary not to speak ill of the recently-dead, and besides, the tributes to him were probably sincere, in that his policies chimed with those who praised him. However, to allow a single policeman to decide whether someone was in the IRA, and to allow three judges rather than a jury to decide if someone should go to jail for a long time is so deeply authoritarian it has the seeds of fascism within it.

In the midst of the eulogies at present being showered on Mr O’Malley, those features of his political life should be kept firmly in mind.

Ultimately, of course, he’s now beyond anyone’s judgement. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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