Monday 18 February 2019

Harney bids to keep her job despite PDs' demise

Ex-leader tells party they have no future as delegates' late rally fails

The Minister for Health Mary Harney. Photo: Peter Muhly, Getty Images
The Minister for Health Mary Harney. Photo: Peter Muhly, Getty Images

in Mullingar

The Minister for Health Mary Harney intends to remain in Government after her party, the Progressive Democrats, voted themselves out of existence when she told them they had "no future".

She said she "loves" her job although she realised she had "no entitlement or legal right" to it.

As the death knell sounded for the Progressive Democrats, the woman who led the party for 13 years will face a future as the only independent at the Cabinet table, if Taoiseach Brian Cowen decides to keep her as Health Minister in the aftermath of yesterday's vote.

Leading cancer specialist John Crown called on the Taoiseach to remove Mary Harney as Minister for Health when the party is formally wound up.

"She has no mandate, no party and no accountability," Prof Crown said last night. "Her position has long been untenable. Now, however, she is in a dangerous position. She has no mandate, she is not facing the electorate again -- so she can do what she wants. Her party was decimated because of co-location, yet she remains. If Fianna Fail choose to keep her in, then people should hammer them in the next election."

The Taoiseach and Ms Harney are expected to meet to discuss any change in her political affiliations. However, Mr Cowen has already expressed his full confidence in the minister.

Ms Harney was given a standing ovation at yesterday's conference in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, to decide the future of the Progressive Democrats. She told the estimated 400 delegates that the PDs had no future and urged them not to be afraid of opening a new chapter.

The delegates voted 201 to 161 to shut up shop, despite a last-minute rally to breathe life into the ailing party by a group of delegates from Limerick, Cork and other counties. A group of PD members produced a survival plan to keep the party alive.

The keynote speeches were from PD leader Senator Ciaran Cannon and other members of the parliamentary party.

Ms Harney received a standing ovation after her address, in which she told members that it was not dishonourable to open a new chapter and appealed for a dignified end to the party.

With the PDs already a spent force, the real interest in yesterday's vote was the impact on Ms Harney's political future.

She said she would have to reflect if delegates had voted to keep the party going. However, it would be untenable for her to remain a member of a party she no longer had confidence in.

She is likely to be more vulnerable around the Cabinet table as a political orphan without a party. She will be the only independent around the table and she could be vulnerable to complaints from Fianna Fail backbenchers who are still stinging over the medical card fiasco.

Another row is brewing over the decision to stall the promised roll-out of the cervical cancer vaccination for teenage girls. Dr Jim McDaid, the Donegal TD, has publicly criticised her decision.

However, Ms Harney has made it clear she wants to stay in the job. After posing with her husband, Brian Geoghegan, before going into yesterday's meeting, Ms Harney told reporters that she "loved" her job, but realised that she had "no entitlement or legal right" to it.

Ms Harney refused to be drawn on her own political future, saying that yesterday was about the Progressive Democrats.

Yesterday's conference started at midday and lasted about five hours. The party's founding father, Des O'Malley, wasn't present, but in a letter read to delegates he said that "common sense demanded that members face the facts and wind up the party". Bobby Molloy, the retired PD minister, was thought to be away.

The PDs were dealt a fatal blow after the general election, in which the then party leader Michael McDowell was among a raft of TDs to lose their seats. Efforts to revive the party with new blood like Ciaran Cannon and Fiona O'Malley have failed.

The PD leadership decided seven weeks ago that the party was no longer politically viable. Some delegates felt that the leadership had not consulted the grassroots. In recent weeks, a group of those delegates campaigned to keep the party alive. Former junior minister Tim O'Malley has been that side's most prominent proponent.

Much concern centred on the fact that the folding of the party would make political orphans out of its two TDs, two senators, and 14 councillors.

Noel Grealish, the Galway TD, has indicated he may join Fianna Fail, while Ciaran Cannon and Fiona O'Malley have been approached by a number of parties. Many councillors who hoped to run in the local elections next year will struggle to find a political home.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News