Sunday 18 March 2018

How Eamon Dunphy got Mary Harney elected leader of Progressive Democrats

Eamon Dunphy was directly responsible for Mary Harney becoming the leader of the Progressive Democrats, he reveals in his autobiography, The Rocky Road, which will be published on Tuesday.

When the FF-PD coalition, led by Albert Reynolds and Des O'Malley, collapsed in 1992, O'Malley appointed Harney deputy leader when the PDs returned to opposition. Eight months later O'Malley resigned as leader.

According to Dunphy, O'Malley favoured Harney to succeed him and tipped her off 24 hours before announcing his resignation.

But instead of giving her an advantage it annoyed the members of the PD parliamentary party who would choose O'Malley's successor. Pat Cox, the former RTE current affairs presenter, was her main challenger and was the clear favourite among the 10 PD TDs who would be voting for a new leader.

Dunphy and Harney had met in the Horseshoe Bar in the Shelbourne a few years earlier when the PDs were formed and had become friends, socialising together.

"A week before the election Harney asked me to meet her for a drink," Dunphy says in the book. "She told me Cox had the election in the bag. It wouldn't even be close. By Harney's tally, Cox would win 7 to 3."

When they met, Harney told Dunphy that she believed she was more popular than Cox with the public, but that there was a bias against electing a woman leader within the parliamentary party.

According to Dunphy, who was working for this paper at the time, she told him that an opinion poll was her only hope. She asked him if he could persuade Sunday Independent editor Aengus Fanning to commission a poll for the following Sunday, the day before the leadership election.

"Aengus was sceptical," Dunphy writes in the book. "Opinion polls were expensive. A single-issue poll seemed extravagant. I enlisted the help of deputy editor Anne Harris. She backed me. The prospect of the first woman leader of an Irish political party was enticing. It was a good story if the numbers fell right." [In fact, the Sunday Independent carried a full opinion poll, in which the Harney issue was just one of many questions.]

'Pat Cox, the former RTE presenter, was her main challenger.'

Sunday's paper led with the news the public preferred Harney, 67 per cent to 33 per cent. Game over.

"Harney won easily. The following day she treated me to lunch. She was relieved. And grateful. My reward was an offer to stand for the PDs at the next election. I politely declined."

Eamon Dunphy's autobiography, The Rocky Road, will be published next Tuesday by Penguin Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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