Last Word on the PDs
Deaglán de Bréadún
Before they are washed away by the receding tide of political history, a few points need to be made about the Progressive Democrats. Joe Higgins described them as an “utterly malign influence” on Vincent Browne’s late-night TV3 programme but that’s too dismissive – they were not all bad, or all good.
My chief criticism of the PDs would be that they focused overmuch on the economic side, contributing to the present situation where we are living in an economy rather than a society.
They were part of the broader Thatcher-Reagan “revolution” which opened-up the market, reduced taxes, cut ”red tape” and made the world safer for free enterprise. There were undoubted spin-off benefits for many people from this, but there was little in the way of accompanying vision.
We roll around the floor nowadays at de Valera’s concept of “frugal comfort” but at least the guy had a vision which went beyond materialism and maximising one’s income and/or profits. That whole era in the 1980s is epitomised by the movie character Gordon Gekko and his gospel that “greed is good”.
On the positive side, the PDs gave an opportunity to a significant number of women to build up careers in politics – a colleague of mine used the wounding phrase, ”a womany party”, in describing them. The nerds may contradict me, but I believe Mary Harney was the only female leader of a mainstream political party so far in the history of this State.
As far as can be ascertained, the PDs also had a basic political integrity. There is no evidence that individual members accepted cash from business people as was the case with Charles Haughey and, more recently, Bertie Ahern. No doubt, as Vincent Browne pointed out on Monday night, there were donations to the party from wealthy entrepreneurs but that was money for the organisation, not for personal aggrandisement.
They jizzed-up the political scene and generated a certain amount of excitement and interest in politics, which is always good. Mary Harney showed real courage in confronting Charles Haughey. Michael McDowell always spoke his mind freely – perhaps too freely for his own good.
At the end of the Vincent Browne show, where the present writer was also a panellist, PD (or should that be ex-PD?) Councillor John Kenny made clear that he could never join Fianna Fáil because of his deep distaste for that party’s standards. Quick as a flash, Joe Higgins pointed out that the PDs had kept FF in power for 14 years.
That was a serious contradiction in the PD approach: they were founded on the basis of revulsion for Haughey and everything he stood for – and then turned around and marched into government with him. Of course they overdid the “Haughey is the Devil Incarnate” routine: they knew they were exaggerating his faults and ended-up working quite happily with him in government.
It’s somehow appropriate that the PDs are winding up now (although I would have thought a two-thirds majority rather than the paper-thin vote on the day would have been more legitimate.) The days of the heavily-deregulated free market are over: the bankers abused their privileges and must now be brought to heel. The world is swinging towards the soft left, as typified by Barack Obama.
Insofar as the PDs helped to create the Celtic Tiger, they deserve credit. But it is now clear that the State failed to calibrate that phenomenon sufficiently: the same was true in other economies. We are in recession and may be careening towards a depression and we’re not very well-prepared for it.
As a journalist, I got to know the PDs quite well on an individual basis. Some of them, I felt, were in the party as a result of circumstances as much as conviction. One prominent woman member initially approached Labour but got little encouragement from that quarter. They were not all right-wing ideologues; some were just ordinary politicians responding to the political situation as it developed.
Another minority party which made a lot of noise in the past was Clann na Poblachta, led by Seán MacBride. They, too, broke the mould of Irish politics by forming a coalition with Fine Gael and others to put FF out of power for the first time in 16 years. Through their health minister, Dr Noel Browne, they successfully tackled the scourge of tuberculosis which was ravaging Irish society at the time and that government, for good or ill, also took Ireland out of the Commonwealth.
Like the PDs, Clann na Poblachta disappeared, but it left an indelible mark.
Link to TV3 discussion: http://www.tv3.ie/videos.php?video=2506&locID=1.65.169&page=1
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times