O'Leary, Michael (1936–2006), government minister and district judge, was born 8 May 1936 in Cork, son of John O'Leary, psychiatric nurse and publican, and his wife Margaret (née McCarthy). He was educated at Presentation Brothers College, Cork, at UCC (1953–6), where he was active in the Labour party and known for 'red' views, and at Columbia University (New York).
Trade union official and Labour politician
He addressed his first Labour party conference as a 'boy wonder' in 1958; his denunciation at the 1959 conference of the long-serving Labour party leader William Norton (qv), who suggested that O'Leary had just cut himself with his first shave, contributed to Norton's subsequent retirement, to be replaced by Brendan Corish (qv).
O'Leary joined the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (of which his father was a member) and was subsequently recruited as education officer to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions by Denis Larkin (qv); he became liaison officer between the ITGWU and the Labour party. Larkin and John Conroy (qv) helped to bring about O'Leary's selection as a Labour candidate for Dublin North Central in the 1965 general election, though there were two other Labour candidates in the constituency (a sitting councillor and a well-established local trade unionist). O'Leary was elected on the final count and remained TD for the area (though representing Dublin Central after boundary changes) until 1982. O'Leary's election was impressive as he had only recently moved to Dublin and had few election workers; the future Labour leader Ruairí Quinn recalled O'Leary's charisma as a street-corner speaker, the fierce sense of excitement and desire for social change which motivated his election workers, and the indignation of a rival Labour candidate who objected to O'Leary's use of the term 'socialism'.
In 1967 O'Leary served on a Labour party commission that revised structures and finances. He was seen as a leading representative of a new breed of Labour representatives, better educated than their predecessors, from middle-class or upwardly mobile backgrounds, more secular in outlook than their predecessors and with stronger commitment to socialist or social-democratic ideology. In the late 1960s he was particularly associated with Barry Desmond, also a Corkman, though they later became more distant. Quinn quotes a disgruntled activist as remarking after the 1981 general election that Labour was now represented in Dublin by 'two Corkmen and a Jew', i.e. Desmond, O'Leary and Mervyn Taylor (Quinn,159). This group provoked a certain amount of resentment (social and personal as well as ideological in origin) from older and more working-class TDs, and this was to have a significant influence on O'Leary's career. At the same time O'Leary benefited immensely from the support of the ITGWU; for example, at a time when dáil secretarial facilities were limited and most Labour TDs had to handle their own correspondence, the union employed a secretary for him. He was one of the party's first graduate TDs, and his personal influence over Corish was significant in moving the leader to the left, especially on church–state issues.
In the late 1960s O'Leary was a leading advocate of the anti-coalition stance favoured by the party's left (in the hope of creating a long-term Labour majority) and adopted by the leadership; in 1967 he proclaimed that Labour would be 'cutting its own throat' if it entered coalition with Fine Gael, a party which he saw 'an alliance between the most reactionary elements of the countryside and a certain section of the professional classes of the towns' (Gallagher, 167–8). He is said to have been responsible for getting Corish to state, during a speech in support of an anti-coalition resolution proposed by O'Leary at the 1969 party conference, that if Labour entered a coalition he (Corish) would return to the backbenches. But like many other activists, O'Leary switched to supporting coalition when the 1969 general election failed to produce Labour gains on the scale anticipated and the upheavals within Fianna Fáil concentrated opposition TDs' minds on the need to provide an alternative government.
In subsequent years O'Leary (with Conor Cruise O'Brien (1917–2008) and Frank Cluskey (qv)) was one of the most outspoken advocates of a 'revisionist' view on Northern Ireland policy (i.e. that partition was not the root cause of the Northern problem and that the Republic should concentrate on removing sectarianism from its own life and constitution), in opposition to those (mostly rural traditionalists but including David Thornley (qv)) who were more sympathetic to republicanism. While O'Leary had made anti-partitionist statements in the 1960s, Cruise O'Brien later recalled that, soon after his election to the dáil in 1969, O'Leary warned him against excessive sympathy for republicans: 'watch out for Cathleen Ní Houlihan … She'll scratch your eyes out' (O'Brien, 324).
O'Leary drew attention by his speaking abilities, his gifts of wit and mimicry (he allegedly commented, in reference to the earlier slogan, 'the seventies will be socialist', that by the time there was a Labour-dominated government 'the socialists will be seventy'), and his good looks (he acquired a considerable reputation as a ladies' man). He was seen as 'the young dauphin of the party' (Quinn, 109). These attributes coexisted with some catholic devotional practices; cynical observers assumed these were adopted for electoral reasons, but in later life, after leaving politics, O'Leary was a regular attender at papally-approved Tridentine masses in Dublin. His bonhomie coexisted with a strong desire for privacy. He was a light drinker, disliked gambling and spoke with contempt of 'lounge-bar society'; this fostered a certain distance between him and the party's more clubbable members. More ominously he was also seen as mercurial and had a low boredom threshold.
Minister for labour
In the 1973–7 Fine Gael–Labour coalition government O'Leary was minister for labour (which included responsibility for women's affairs); he would have preferred a more senior ministry. As minister he was responsible for several major items of legislation on employment conditions and rights, though in fact most of these were required by EEC directives. He encountered much criticism then and subsequently for trying on behalf of the government to delay implementation of his own legislation on equal pay for women (1976), on the grounds that the country could not afford it during an economic slump; but he was thwarted by the EEC commissioner for social affairs, Patrick Hillery (1923–2008), whose personal relations with O'Leary were tense. In 1976 he negotiated the first National Wage Agreement with unions and employers.
O'Leary was seen by some observers as excessively fond of ministerial high living and displaying a certain lack of discipline; he sometimes skimped his briefings and was careless in handling discussions. He was regarded by some TDs as being over-ambitious and unreliable, but as the Labour party's financial secretary he raised £10,000 for the 1977 general election from anonymous corporate donors.
When Brendan Corish retired immediately after defeat in the 1977 election O'Leary and Frank Cluskey (who had been parliamentary secretary to the minister for health and social welfare in the 1973–7 government) contested the leadership. They had been rivals for some time and the contest mirrored divisions within the party going back to the 1940s. Cluskey was a member of the Workers' Union of Ireland, and was supported by the two other WUI dáil deputies. Six of the eight ITGWU deputies, strongly encouraged by their formidable general secretary, Michael Mullen (qv), supported O'Leary. Mullen's quarrel with Cluskey over his opposition to Mullen's strongly republican views on the Northern Ireland conflict contributed to this, although O'Leary was equally unsympathetic to Mullen on this issue. Similarly, most traditionalist rural TDs favoured O'Leary despite disagreement with many of his views, while most Dublin TDs backed Cluskey. Although in the early stages of the coalition government Corish was believed to favour O'Leary as his successor, his sympathies had shifted towards Cluskey. By resigning immediately after the general election the outgoing leader ensured the contest would take place before the new dáil met; hence the outgoing ceann comhairle, Seán Treacy, who would have supported O'Leary, was ineligible to vote. In the run-up to the leadership election O'Leary subjected wavering and even opposed TDs to performance 'of sustained and intense lobbying power', spelling out his views on how the party needed to be improved (Horgan, 38). The Labour TDs initially split 8–8; rather than drawing a name from a hat (as procedure dictated), they voted again, and one of O'Leary's supporters switched to Cluskey. O'Leary was chosen unanimously as deputy leader and appointed Labour spokesman on finance; however, he obsessively resented his defeat and was excluded from Cluskey's inner circle. Cluskey thought O'Leary was plotting against him; O'Leary believed, with some justification, that the noticeably working-class Cluskey would handicap the party in competing for middle-class votes with Garret FitzGerald's (qv) increasingly social-democratic Fine Gael. Journalists sympathetic to O'Leary kept up a sniping campaign against Cluskey; at one point O'Leary was directly ordered by his colleagues to disavow them. 'Frank was great with the party but not with the public, while Michael was great with the public but a disaster in the party', a Labour TD later reminisced to Stephen Collins (Spring and the labour story, 56–7). O'Leary began studying for the bar at King's Inns and grew increasingly irregular in his dáil attendance, especially after he reaffirmed his electoral appeal by winning a Dublin seat in the first direct elections to the European parliament (1979). He was also a chronic absentee from meetings of the parliamentary party, the administrative council, and the party's officer board.
Leader and tánaiste
O'Leary finally became party leader after Cluskey lost his seat in the 1981 general election. He agreed, reluctantly, to resign his European seat in favour of Cluskey. After achieving several concessions on economic policy in negotiating a programme for government with FitzGerald, he became tánaiste and minister for energy in the short-lived Fine Gael–Labour coalition of 1981–2. He had sought, but failed to obtain, a commitment that the government would hold a referendum on the existing constitutional ban on divorce. O'Leary also declared his personal opposition to the proposed eighth or 'pro-life' amendment to the constitution (about which Cluskey had been non-committal), claiming its wording was legally flawed and represented catholic sectarianism. This represented the first breach in the apparent party consensus on the abortion issue and moved the Labour party towards opposing a constitutional referendum.
O'Leary's leadership came under grassroots pressure from the start, as he openly declared that Cluskey's policy of trying to hold the balance of power rather than forming a pre-election pact with Fine Gael had driven some potential Labour voters to support Fine Gael for fear Labour might keep Fianna Fáil in power. Although most TDs supported coalition a vociferous left-wing faction claimed it involved unacceptable compromise, and there was a widespread sense that the parliamentary party should be made more accountable to the membership. These views were reinforced by the appearance of the Workers' Party and left-wing independent politicians as serious electoral rivals to Labour, especially in Dublin. (In the February 1982 election O'Leary was outpolled in his own constituency by the leftist Tony Gregory (1947–2009).) O'Leary was seen as semi-detached; at one point during the summer the party lost touch with him for weeks. (He was reading for his final bar exams and living in a hotel while his house was renovated.)
Labour in opposition
After the fall of the coalition government the pressure on O'Leary's leadership increased. During the February 1982 election campaign the party's administrative council spent several all-night meetings arguing over the terms on which the party should renew its alliance with Fine Gael; O'Leary promptly ignored its conclusions. After the general election the administrative council voted that Labour should support a Fine Gael minority government rather than entering a new coalition. O'Leary subsequently failed to recruit a high-profile candidate for the Dublin West by-election in May (where Labour was outvoted by the Workers' Party) and directed a high-profile campaign in the Galway West by-election where Labour had no chance of doing well and which took him away from dáil sittings.
As the precarious dáil position of the Fianna Fáil minority government, which had taken office in March 1982, suggested a general election in the near future, O'Leary staked his leadership on an attempt to persuade the Labour party conference in October to give the leadership authority to negotiate a pre-election coalition deal without referring back to party members. Although calls for no coalition under any circumstances were defeated, O'Leary's preferred option was rejected in favour of an amendment (backed by Cluskey and Barry Desmond) which reaffirmed the existing position (that a coalition deal would have to be approved by a party conference); this showed that dissatisfaction with O'Leary extended beyond the left and those who opposed coalition on principle. O'Leary then resigned both from the leadership and from the party, announcing he was joining Fine Gael because he believed this offered the best chance of a change of government at the next election. Ironically, when the dáil was dissolved shortly afterwards, the prospect of an immediate general election led Labour to commit itself to forming a new coalition; O'Leary was succeeded by Dick Spring, who had been his closest ally, and Pat Magner, O'Leary's appointee as national organiser, played a central role in the party's later reorganisation.
O'Leary's defection from Labour, which briefly led to speculation that the party faced complete disintegration, was seen by his former colleagues as betrayal and led to profound estrangement on a personal as well as a political level. ('We tend not to forgive him', Spring commented later. 'Of course he should have stayed in the party … but that wasn't his style. He was always a man for going to extremes and he threw us into chaos' (Spring and the labour story, 92).
Fine Gael deputy
In the November 1982 general election O'Leary became Fine Gael TD for Dublin South West; however, his former Labour colleagues insisted that he should not hold office in the subsequent Fine Gael–Labour coalition government, and he became an isolated backbencher mistrusted by his new colleagues as well as his former allies. His former Labour colleague Brendan Halligan described him as 'the whiskey priest of Irish politics' (Horgan, 16.) O'Leary's previously close friendship with FitzGerald deteriorated and he took to denouncing the government for its failure to introduce divorce. In 1985 O'Leary introduced a private member's bill on divorce which, though defeated, put pressure on the government and led to the 1986 divorce referendum. He considered joining the Progressive Democrats on their formation in December 1985 and was active in the discussions leading to their establishment, but was turned down by Desmond O'Malley on the grounds that the new party should not seem to be a refuge for failed politicians.
O'Leary retired from the dáil at the 1987 general election and returned to Cork to practise as a barrister. He was a Fine Gael candidate in Cork North Central in the 1992 general election but received only 894 votes (two per cent of the votes cast). In 1997 he was appointed a district judge by the 'rainbow' coalition government (Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left), mainly handling civil cases. In later years he became semi-reclusive and suffered from cancer and Parkinson's disease. Just after retiring from the bench at the statutory age of 70, he died on 11 May 2006 in a drowning accident in the swimming pool of his holiday home at St Sever de Rustan, near Biarritz. He was buried in France. He was married twice (secondly to the journalist Mary Moloney Lynch in 2004) and had one daughter by his first marriage.