PDs vote to disband party after 23 years


THE DECISION taken by the Progressive Democrats at the weekend to disband after 23 years in existence was described by its former leader Mary Harney as the "saddest political day" of her career.

At a special meeting of the PDs in Mullingar, Co Westmeath on Saturday, members voted by 201 votes to 161 to defeat an amendment calling for the party to continue in existence.

The vote came after four hours of debate at a meeting attended by an estimated 500 party members. The meeting heard a number of passionate speeches for and against the party voting itself out of existence. The party leadership, including its two TDs and two Senators, argued that the Progressive Democrats had no viable future.

Former party leader Ms Harney made what was described as an outstanding extemporary speech, using no notes or prompts, which won a standing ovation from members. A concerted get-out-the-vote campaign by the party leadership over the past week was also seen as decisive. Ms Harney later accepted that the margin was narrow.

"The vote was very close, just 40 votes. That, by any standards, was very close," she said.

Once the amendment was defeated, the original motion to disband the party, put by its two TDs and two Senators, was carried by a show of hands.

The meeting later approved an amendment to the party constitution allowing the national executive to bring a process of winding down the party. The party will be removed from the Dáil register of parties next month or early in the new year and then cease to exist.

Speaking after the conclusion, Ms Harney said she had felt compelled to speak in favour of winding down the party, telling delegates that their heads should rule over their hearts.

"When we were formed, Des O'Malley was a year younger than Obama is today . . . in order for the party to continue you need people of that calibre . . . I don't see that in the party today," she said.

Two former party leaders, founder Des O'Malley and Michael McDowell, did not attend; nor did former TDs Bobby Molloy and Liz O'Donnell. However, a letter from Mr O'Malley that stated that the party could not continue was read out to delegates.

It read: "Our current circumstances are such that we cannot and should not indulge in wishfully thinking that we can continue as before."

In the letter, Mr O'Malley paid tribute to many of the party's long-serving members - including Mr Molloy, Pearse Wyse, Peadar Clohessy, Máirín Quill, Liz O'Donnell and John Dardis - but omitted the name of Michael McDowell, who resigned as leader and a member of the PDs after losing his Dáil seat in last year's general election. Ms Harney said that all the founding members - herself, Mr O'Malley, Mr Molloy, Mr McDowell and trustee Paul McKay - shared the view that the party had no future.

"It was a very emotional meeting for many people," she said. "I think the decision was arrived at with great dignity . . . and not made lightly. I think the closeness of the vote would indicate that."

Party leader Senator Ciarán Cannon said the outcome of the meeting had left him with mixed emotions.

"The parliamentary party arrived at a particular mindset that it wanted to share with the party, and that opinion won today. It means, in effect, that I am winding up the party that I had so much hope for and I thought had so much promise only four or five years ago," he said.

Several prominent members of the party, including former senator Tom Morrissey, Serena Campbell from Meath East, and Tadhg Kearney, spoke in favour of the party continuing.

Speaking after the meeting, Ms Campbell said she was very disappointed and "quite angry" at the conclusion, but hinted that she may pursue the formation of a new party.

"The members have decided," she said. "We have to find out where we go from here. We might have a new dimension, we might have a new political party in the future hopefully, with similar beliefs. I still fundamentally believe in what the Progressive Democrats started out to do in 1985."

Asked why the decision was arrived at, she said: "Maybe they are tired. Maybe they feel they have flown the flag for long enough. Maybe they feel there are not enough young people out there."

Outlining his view on how the decision was reached, former general secretary of the party John Higgins said many members wanted to continue but were unable to identify a strong leadership figure.

"Where is the strong leadership going to come from? Unfortunately that wasn't apparent in the hall and therefore that's why the motion was carried," he said.

Ms Harney also confirmed she would not join any other political party "either now or in the future".

It is widely believed that the party's other TD Noel Grealish and Senator Fiona O'Malley will join Fianna Fáil, but neither have confirmed their future intentions.

Mr Grealish said yesterday that he would wait until the party is dissolved before making any declaration. Senator Cannon, who is seen as a potential recruit for Fine Gael, did say that he wanted to be involved with a political party.

Mr Grealish, a TD for Galway West, also responded to criticisms of his role in recent months made by Tom Morrissey at the meeting.

He said that, unlike Mr Morrissey, he had an electoral mandate and therefore the authority to articulate his views publicly.