Tuesday 27 September 2016

Shaping the politics that spawned the Celtic Tiger

Published 08/09/2006 | 00:11

IF it had not been for the pugnacity of Mary Harney, there would have been no PDs - and their famous slogan, 'Breaking the Mould', would never have been coined.

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I retain a vivid recollection in my mind of a young Harney seated in a corner of the Dail bar deep in conversation with Des O'Malley.

Their unseasonable seriousness struck me as odd only a few days before Christmas 1985 when other deputies were in festive mood.

Little did I know that I was in the proximity of the final birth pangs of the Progressive Democrats which they had been plotting privately, and which they delivered next day at an official press launch.

It was the bullish conviction of Harney that steeled the moody O'Malley, recently expelled from Fianna Fail parliamentary party for "conduct unbecoming", into becoming the new party's first leader.

The drab economic landscape which hovered over the budget infighting in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition led by Garret FitzGerald and Dick Spring lifted overnight, as O'Malley and Harney spoke of a coming dawn in Irish politics.

Their pledge to break the mould of Civil War politics which for almost 60 years had allowed Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to carve up the democratic system not only made headline news, it energised a middle ground in public opinion to re-engage in politics.

The party's catchment area was appealing to those looking for political way that would champion a pluralist, non-sectarian society in the Republic, reconciliation between nationalism and unionism in the North, while pursuing a liberal free market approach to the economy that would give priority to reduce taxation, then at penal rates even for low earners.

Historians will debate for decades as to how far the PDs succeeded in their ambitious aims, but in their 20 years of existence, the party has been in power for nearly 13 of them, shaping, if not moulding, the policies which spawned the Celtic Tiger economy.

However, it was not inevitable that the PDs would prove successful, given the previous short life-spans of post-Independence small parties.

Its stunning 15 seats in the February general election of 1987 contributed to the defeat of FitzGerald's Fine Gael and deprived Charles J Haughey of an overall majority, but its decsignal its early marginalisation, and its own demoulding.

But it was Harney's well-honed grasp of realpolitik that first recognised that Haughey had fallen short of forming a government and that the Fianna Fail leader would do the unthinkable and form a Coalition with the despised PDs and his most formidable enemy, O'Malley.

With Haughey's replacement as Taoiseach in 1991 by Albert Reynolds, it was only a matter of time until the Longford Slasher ensured that the first FF-PD coalition would be "a temporary little arrangement."

At the Beef Tribunal Albert sealed the fate of his Government with a jugular attack on Dessie that led to the withdrawal of the PDs from the Cabinet in 1992.

During the next five years spent in Opposition, the good days for the PDs seemed to be behind them. Harney took over as leader after a costly contest with Pat Cox, who stormed off to Europe. And to the amazement of the media which was writing the PDs' obituary, Harney steered her small party, both in 1997 and 2002, into a decade of partnership governance with Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail.

The closeness of the Bertie and Mary relationship guaranteed stability despite occasional squabbles but will this survive nine months without Mother Harney at Bertie's side?

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