Des O’Malley’s volte face for Charles Haughey in 1989 shows that an FG-FF deal is possible
Published in the Sunday Business Post, 7 February 2016
The opinion polls suggest that Ireland is on course for a hung Dáil. The current political landscape does not present the same obvious coalition choices as before.
Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath first recognised this last August, when he said his party should not rule out entering government as a junior coalition partner. Dermot Ahern’s intervention last week was more explicit. The former justice minister suggested that Fianna Fáil could have no option but to support Fine Gael in government after the election.
The leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have categorically and unequivocally ruled out any such coalition. That said, anything can happen in the time between an election and the formation of a government. Pragmatism almost always wins over principles when power is at stake.
Lesson one: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela.
May 14, 1989, National Stadium, Dublin. Des O’Malley makes his presidential speech at the Progressive Democrats ard fheis. “The shyest of them all, of course, is Mr Haughey. His serious interview outings are as rare as President Reagan’s used to be. The PJ voce of that redoubtable duce sees to that.” You really need to see the RTÉ video clip to fully appreciate how much O’Malley enjoyed sniping at his nemesis. That pause for effect and his rhyming emphasis on voce with duce, that only O’Malley could deliver in that droll tone.
His speech is dripping with vitriolic references to Haughey: arrogant, domineering, callous, obsessed with power, an orgy of drunken promises, an addiction to the photocall.
Haughey dissolves the Dáil 11 days later.
The PDs campaign on why the “malignant force” of Haughey is “unfit for office”.Alan Dukes and O’Malley announce a general election pact between Fine Gael and the PDs in a joint press conference on June 9, 1989. O’Malley makes an “unequivocal commitment to the electorate” not to vote for Haughey as Taoiseach. Fianna Fáil campaigns on its core principle of single-party government as a prerequisite for “stability”.
A deadlocked Dáil meets on June 29. For the first time in the history of the state, none of the candidates nominated for Taoiseach secures a majority. Fianna Fáil is short of six votes to form a government. The PDs win six seats in the election. O’Malley takes the opportunity to “unambiguously restate our position by stating that we would be voting against Deputy Haughey”.
Haughey describes the situation as “unprecedented” and, despite his constitutional requirement to resign as Taoiseach, refuses to do so. He goes on RTÉ’s This Week radio programme two days later, to decisively rule out Fianna Fáil abandoning its single-party government stance.
Lesson two: “The first reality of leadership is to accept reality.” – John Bruton.
Unknown to O’Malley, the 36-year-old Mary Harney decides to fly a kite on RTÉ radio about the feasibility of a coalition arrangement between the PDs and Fianna Fáil.
O’Malley will later write in his autobiography that Harney “saw reality earlier than most of us, and in fairness, I must say she articulated the unthinkable before anybody else”.
A deadlocked Dáil meets for a second time on July 3. “The record shows that coalition governments have not the same capacity to be effective and decisive as one party governments have,” Haughey tells the Dáil. O’Malley does an 180-degree turn and urges Fianna Fáil to “look at their claim to be the ‘party of reality’ . . . and to join in giving this country a Government based on partnership”.
Three days later, O’Malley and Haughey are singing from the same hymn sheet of national interest and stability when the Dáil meets yet again but fails to nominate a Taoiseach. O’Malley speaks of a new political era, a new approach. For his part, Haughey grudgingly acknowledges that Fianna Fáil may have to enter “into some form of political alliance”. He refuses to use the word coalition.
“Politics is not an academic profession, but rather one in which decisions have to be made that involve compromise and adaption to change and changing circumstances,” O’Malley later writes in Conduct Unbecoming. The title of his memoir is a reference to the incident that Haughey had used to expel him from Fianna Fáil.
Lesson three: “Dáil arithmetic is more powerful than bitter, personal animosities.” – Brendan O’Brien, Today Tonight, RTÉ.
The impossible happens on July 12, 1989. O’Malley announces to the Dáil that he is “pleased and proud” to propose Haughey as Taoiseach. It only takes 27 days for Fianna Fáil to renounce its 63-year principle of single-party government and for the PDs to coalesce with their sworn adversaries.
Haughey still studiously avoids the word “coalition”. The “only possible alliance”, a “new government”, and “new administration” get him over his linguistic principles. Albert Reynolds will later famously describe the Fianna Fáil-PD government as a “temporary little arrangement”.
Haughey marks the historic occasion with a quote from an 18th-century Joseph Addison play about the tyranny of Julius Caesar. “Tis not in mortals to command success; but we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it,” he says.
The impossible happens because political pragmatism demands it.
Lesson four: “The national interest requires a stable coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.” – Enda Kenny or Micheál Martin, March 2016.