Party pledges to take on State's vested interests


Analysis: Agenda ranged from new TDs to priorities, but no new leader, writes Mark Brennock from Galway

"Driving Change" was the theme of the PD conference and for much of the weekend, speculation was rife about change at the top.

Michael McDowell's Dublin South East constituency had proposed a motion to change the method of electing the leader which many think would suit their man; Tom Parlon had suggested a reorientation of the PDs in a direction that would make him its logical leader; Liz O'Donnell waited in the wings with party chairman John Minihan introducing her to delegates by saying: "She hasn't gone away you know."

Mary Harney, meanwhile, was initially coy about her intentions, avoiding direct answers on Friday. Yesterday, however, in an interview with The Irish Times, she addressed it clearly: "It is my intention to lead the party into the next general election."

The delegates basked in their General Election success, with some crowing on Saturday night over pundits and enemies who had predicted their demise, only to see them return with eight seats. They were delighted, too, at Fianna Fáil's John McGuinness and others for accusing them of having a disproportionate influence in Government.

Change was obvious too in the make-up of the conference. Many veteran members remarked at how the influx of new members with the election success - particularly that of Mr Parlon in bringing Laois-Offaly's strength to 500 or 20 per cent of the national total - had changed the party's composition. The well-heeled urban atmosphere of previous conferences was diluted.

Mr Parlon wasted no time in suggesting this should involve a reorientation of the party. In a speech ostensibly about economic policy he stopped short of saying "Vote Tom Parlon" but the message was there between the lines.

The party must move out from its traditional enclaves of Ballsbridge and Clonskeagh to appeal to regional and rural Ireland. Last year's election result had brought "a profound change in the political make-up of the Progressive Democrats. We have moved geographically and ideologically from the concrete to the grass. We are now a party where Ballybrophy and Castlerea are as important as Ballsbridge and Clonskeagh", he said. Both of these suburbs, incidentally, lie in Mr McDowell's constituency.

The "new policy areas" that deserved the party's attention included building communities, decentralisation, regional development, social policy, tackling rural population decline, protecting family farming. All of which are issues associated with the former IFA president.

Earlier, Mr McDowell's Dublin constituency withdrew its motion seeking to move to a one-member one-vote system of electing the party leader. He didn't want to fuel speculation about the leadership, they said. Indeed Mr McDowell later echoed comments by Ms Harney, Ms O'Donnell and others to the effect that such a change could leave the party open to takeover by whoever could bring in the most members. Nobody mentioned Laois/Offaly directly. Some form of electoral college in which members and the parliamentary party have a say seems the most likely outcome when the issue is discussed in the autumn at a special conference.

Amid the speculation about personalities, there was time to consider policy too. The tax cutting days are over and party strategists recognised that to retain its identity as a radical reforming party, it had to focus energy on other areas of deliverable change.

Ms Harney promised reform or the insurance market within a year and the beginning of a major programme of moving chunks of the public service out of Dublin in the same time-frame. "Rip- offs" of consumers had to stop and in comments echoing strong remarks by the Taoiseach, she warned sectors of the economy which had been sheltered from competition that their protected days were numbered.

She remarked it was "chilling" to note that with the exception of engineers, there was no effective competition in most professions. The existing law and new legislation would be used to end barriers to entering certain professions, to outlaw restrictive practices, and to drive costs down.

In short, the PDs' agenda for this Government is one of taking on vested interests everywhere. It is an ambitious project, which if accomplished will copperfasten their position as a radical party of change.