Paul Mackay obituary: One of four founders of the Progressive Democrats

Taking on Charlie Haughey was courageous, and he later remarked that it cost him in his business as well as damaging longstanding friendships

Paul Mackay played a central role in the general election of 1987 which saw the PDs make a dramatic breakthrough, winning 14 seats. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Born: April 16th, 1941

Died: June 11th, 2024

Paul Mackay made an important contribution to Irish politics through his involvement in the establishment of the Progressive Democrats (PDs). He was the quiet man of the foursome who launched the party in December 1985, the others being Des O’Malley, Mary Harney and Michael McDowell. But his role was every bit as important as theirs in getting the new political party off the ground.

An experienced accountant, Mackay raised the bank loan that enabled the PDs to acquire a headquarters in Dublin’s South Frederick Street in advance of the launch and he subsequently played a backroom role in all of the key decisions during the party’s tumultuous history.


Before that, Mackay had been a senior member of the Fianna Fáil organisation in Charles Haughey’s constituency but was expelled from the organisation for querying why the leader was spending money raised on behalf of the party for his personal political use.

Taking on Haughey at that stage was a courageous thing for a busy accountant to do and he later remarked that it cost him in his business as well as damaging longstanding friendships.

Paul Mackay was born in Dublin in 1941 and brought up in Clontarf. He attended Belgrove junior boys school before going on to Terenure College as a boarder. He worked in the family-run tyre remoulding business and studied accountancy at night. He qualified as a chartered accountant in 1965. In 1971 he took up a private practice specialising in corporate recovery.

He became interested in politics because of his admiration for Sean Lemass and joined the Clontarf cumann of Fianna Fáil in the 1960s. The constituency was represented by two of the leading Fianna Fáil politicians of the era, Charles Haughey and George Colley. Mackay was firmly in the Colley camp.

When a boundary revision split the constituency, Mackay found himself marooned in the Haughey bailiwick of Dublin North East. At the constituency agm in 1981, he was made auditor of the local party finances but when he sought access to the records he was told they were none of his business.

A dispute followed and Haughey’s supporters moved to expel him from the organisation. Demonstrating the streak of toughness that characterised his approach to politics, he obtained a court injunction preventing his dismissal without cause or due notice. It was only a stay of execution before he was formally dismissed in May 1983.

Two years later Des O’Malley was also expelled from Fianna Fáil and Mackay wrote him a letter of commiseration. “You are aware of the support you have throughout the country. Several of my friends and acquaintances have assured me that they are more than willing to help you should you decide to pursue the option of forming a new political grouping. I am assured by them that both time and finance would be made available.”

Mackay was contacted by Mary Harney and she arranged a meeting with Michael McDowell, then a member of Fine Gael. Between them they persuaded a reluctant O’Malley to lead the new party and Mackay set about putting the finances in place to run the organisation.

When Mackay travelled to Limerick to meet potential supporters, O’Malley’s wife Pat insisted on a private chat. “Do you know this man at all? Do you know what type of man he is; how difficult he is?” she asked. “If you get involved with this man it is going to be a rough, rough ride. It’s like becoming involved with Jesus Christ. Once you declare yourself for him you have to forget everything else and be with him. He is difficult.”

An astonished Mackay replied that he knew what to expect. “Of course I didn’t, but I was well warned at any rate,” he remarked years later, although his relationship with the “difficult” O’Malley proved durable.

He played a central role in the general election of 1987 which saw the PDs make a dramatic breakthrough, winning 14 seats and helping to deprive Haughey of an overall majority. He was director of elections in the unexpected 1989 contest, which saw the party reduced to six seats but had the unexpected outcome of bringing the PDs into government with Fianna Fáil.

Over the following two decades, Mackay played a leading role in the PDs as treasurer and election strategist as the party’s fortunes ebbed and flowed. His involvement continued when O’Malley retired and was replaced by Mary Harney in 1993 and again when she was succeeded by Michael McDowell in 2006.

His last campaign was the disastrous election of 2007 when the party was reduced to just two seats with leader Michael McDowell one of those who lost out. After some agonising, the surviving party members decided it was time to call it a day and the organisation was wound up in 2009.

As well as the disappointment of political extinction, Mackay had to cope with business stresses resulting from the financial crisis of 2008-10 but neither of these setbacks compared with the blows he suffered in his personal life. His son Niall died of cancer in 2018 and his wife Lila died two years ago. Their passing had a profound impact on him.

He is survived by his children Ronan, Elva and Gavan.