Friday 21 October 2016

Thirty years on, the 'PD story' has many lessons

Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30

Des O'Malley and Mary Harney at the Offices of the newly formed Progressive Democrats in 1985.
Des O'Malley and Mary Harney at the Offices of the newly formed Progressive Democrats in 1985.

Disillusionment with the established parties and old politics. A yearning for new leadership to enthuse people and give them hope that Ireland could change and do better.

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We could be talking about December 2015, and in many ways we are. But, since it was on this very day 30 years ago that the Progressive Democrats launched, we are also talking about late December 1985.

Almost five years ago, the current Government swept into power and promised us an economic revival and a new way of ordering our affairs via vastly-reformed politics. In the ensuing five years, we have mercifully experienced a considerable economic revival - but 'new politics' have very definitely not happened.

And yet, 2015 was among other things 'the Year of the New Party'. Lucinda Creighton ended a year-long tease with her new party, eventually called Renua Ireland, proposing "new politics" and better value for taxpayers.

Next up was the Independent Alliance led by unlikely allies spanning right and left, town and country. Principals include Shane Ross, Michael Fitzmaurice and Finian McGrath. This group launched twice also, in late March with a meeting in Tullamore and in July at Leinster House.

Also in July, the Social Democrats, led by Róisín Shortall and Stephen Donnelly, launched calling for better public services. The duo were joined by Kildare North Independent, Catherine Murphy, who profiled herself throughout the year seeking an inquiry into the sale of the company Siteserv to a firm owned by businessman Denis O'Brien.

Finally, there was another attempt by the hard left to unite with the Anti-Austerity Alliance fusing with the People Before Profit to become the AAA-PBP. They have four TDs and 28 councillors and have put the emphasis on election cooperation in a clear effort to avoid ideological disputes.

It is early days and it is too easy to dismiss new political ventures without giving their founders time to draw breath. Life is murder for all small parties in the Irish system. The financial and organisational dice is very heavily loaded in favour of the bigger and traditional parties. A better handicap system to even up the score a little for new political ventures should be considered, but that may be for another day.

Having acknowledged those realities, however, we can also say that none of the four new parties or movements launched in 2015 has shown an early sign of emulating Des O'Malley's and Mary Harney's Progressive Democrats, or PDs as they were known for all of their quarter of a century in existence.

Like them or loathe them, the PDs were a big force on the Irish political landscape for most of their time in existence. They spent more than half their lifespan in government, were instrumental in ending Fianna Fáil's ban on sharing cabinet seats in coalition, and generally drove much of the national agenda for over two decades, especially emphasising low taxation.

One major reason for the PDs' successes was the high-profile nature and sheer calibre of the principals of the people behind it. Des O'Malley, Bobby Molloy and Mary Harney were household names with considerable political experience and were proven performers on national radio and television.

Some of those behind the four new enterprises cited above are well known enough and they have been at Leinster House for some time. But none has quite the pedigree of O'Malley, Molloy and the others.

The nearest comparison is from time to time made with Renua Ireland. But this has an over-reliance on Lucinda Creighton, a very talented politician, who was a junior minister for little over two years. Critics will also note that while Renua has similarities with the PDs on economic issues and government reforms, it is much more confused on social and moral issues.

But in fairness to our new 2015 quartet, we must also acknowledge some differences between contemporary Ireland and how things were in 1985. The PDs' foundation was set against ongoing economic stagnation with high taxation, foreign debt, emigration and inflation.

Contemporary Ireland has seen many signs for hope. It is a good thing for most of us - but it makes things hard for new political movements.

We must also note that Ireland 2015 does not have the divisive presence of a Charlie Haughey at the head of a major political movement. Haughey's presence in 1985 helped many people orientate their political thinking to opt for him - or anybody but him. For better or worse, our contemporary leaders are far more benign.

But the PD journey also has a very direct lesson which may well apply after the next election. It is not often remembered that Des O'Malley and co fought their second election in June 1989 in a pact with Fine Gael.

Their first act in the reconvened Dáil was to vote for Fine Gael leader, Alan Dukes, as Taoiseach. Once that symbolic act was safely out of the way, they got down to coalition negotiations with Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fáil - for many people the enmity for that entity was the very reason the PDs existed at all.

We have seen other examples in the ensuing years of how pledges of "no coalition" or "coalition with X only" were swiftly set aside once parliamentary arithmetic dictated another course.

We may well see more.

Irish Independent

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