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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 15, 2008 @ 11:30 am

    Pee Dee or not Pee Dee, that is the question

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Bigger parties must wonder what they have to do to get the media attention that is lavished on the Progressive Democrats. Probably the reason is that the PDs were different: not a catch-all party that stood for anything and everything but a radical party of the right.       

            Not the far right like the BNP, I hasten to add, but distinctly right of centre with tough, uncompromising policies on the issue of taxation in particular. They said the things Fianna Fáil espoused in their heart of hearts but would not implement for fear of jeopardising their populist profile.

            The PDs shook up the political consensus and when their low-tax policies became the conventional wisdom, it helped the economy to take off in a big way. Another example of PD influence was Mary Harney’ s deregulation of the taxi industry. Time was, you would be waiting for hours in the rain in Dublin on a Saturday night for a cab home but now you can hardly move, there are so many taxis touting for custom in the city.

            The point about becoming a successful capitalist economy is that you have to loosen the fetters. That’s what the PDs did and nearly everyone is a PD now in that regard. It was very significant when Pat Rabbitte, as Labour leader, called for lower personal taxation prior to last year’s general election.

            Not everyone will be happy about the PDs’ role. Some will feel that, in the  process of becoming rich on the back of PD-type policies, we have lost a spiritual dimension to our society. On the other hand, net emigration came to a halt. Irish parents are no longer rearing their children for export, although that may start again if the downturn continues.

            The current situation in the PDs is reminiscent of the final scenes in different movies about the Titanic (the recent Leo DiCaprio version and the earlier Night to Remember). Passengers are scrambling for the lifeboats and it’s every man for himself, more or less.

            It looks like Noel Grealish has cooked up a deal with FF’s Noel Dempsey. The package is on offer to other elected representatives if they choose to accept it. Meanwhile Harney will probably not go back to FF but may be rewarded with the European Commissionership in due course. She has taken an awful lot of stick as Health Minister over the years (remember how Brian Cowen called that department “Angola” because there were so many landmines?) and FF has to be grateful for that. Indeed, if the bulk of the PDs join the Soldiers of Destiny, Cowen will be even more grateful.

            One has to feel sorry for Ciarán Cannon. He has the most unenviable job in Irish politics. It was like being appointed captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. In today’s Irish Times I said he was supposed to be a leader but has now been cast in the role of liquidator (there’s a good theme-song for the party in its present state by Shirley Bassey). 

           Word is Fine Gael would be keen to have Cannon. Fiona O’Malley gets on well politically with Cowen and, if she jumps ship, would be expected to opt for FF. In retrospect, would Fiona have been a better choice as leader, or was it too late for anyone to save the situation? Probably the latter.

            Whatever is going on between the PDs and another party or parties is clearly not being shared with the national executive and most of the local councillors. They are not the first party to make a major impact and then fade from view. Clann na Poblachta was the driving force in getting FF out of government in 1948 but then broke on the rocks of the Mother and Child Scheme. But C na P left a lasting impact and so, whether people like it or not, will the PDs.
    Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      I wrote a bit at the time about the strange nature of the PD leadership election result.


      Fact is that O’Malley was the long-term gamble, while Cannon was more predictable but with less potential upside. And he said that he wanted to keep the party in government which I believe meant it was about managed decline. O’Malley was more likely to pull out for some reason and to seek to chart a new independent course, riskier but with more prospect of long-term survival.

      The PDs had a significant impact but I think they ended up missing the main chance to reshape politics completely. There is an interesting counter-factual to be written about what if there had been an general election just as they were at their peak of support and if the resultant vote had left themselves and FG able to form a government (even a minority one) while FF tore themselves apart over Haughey in the aftermath as they’d gone under 60 seats.

    • Brian Boru says:

      As someone who voted for Colm O’Gorman last year, I think the following are the reasons for the PDs’ demise:

      A: Entering govt in 2002 when FF didn’t need them and when their ability to implement their economic agenda (especially the wide-ranging privatisation in the 2002 manifesto) was almost non-existent. They also chose non-economic portfolios which changed how they were identified by the public from being associated with economic growth to the failings in our justice system and health services instead. They allowed themselves to become FF’s mudguards. They should have pulled out of govt rather than accept their treatment at the hands of FF, who treated their proposals for café-bars with open contempt.

      B: They alienated two sources of transfers before the 2007 election – FG voters annoyed that they didn’t pull out of govt over ‘Bertiegate’, and FF voters annoyed that they showed signs of being unsure of whether to remain in govt. FF voters are historically reluctant to transfer to parties perceived as hostile to FF.

      C: Much – though by no means all – of their economic agenda has been poached by FF and FG, e.g., income tax cuts, some privatisation (though nothing on the scale the PDs wanted). This, combined with the other factors, helped these parties wean some “soft” PD voters back to what were usually their natural political homes anyway.

      D: The end of the Northern conflict undermined that aspect of their appeal, i.e., to anti-Sinn Féin voters, etc.

      E: The Irish electoral-landscape has been very tough for anyone other than FF, FG and Labour. Many micro-parties had their moment of glory at around 10% before fizzling out over a period of 20 years or so. The two-and-a-half-party system seems embedded in the political consciousness of most people.

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