Revived PDs hope for recall to government

 

ANALYSIS/PDs: The PDs have pulled off a dramatic coup and now await the call from Mr Ahern, writes Mark Brennock, Political Correspondent

The Progressive Democrats had the most outstanding result of the election, with Michael McDowell deserving the man of the match award for his role in driving the party's winning strategy.

But although they are emerging with a strengthened parliamentary party - in terms of quantity and quality - they are not necessarily in a stronger negotiating position with Fianna Fáil. They are relying on the Taoiseach's famed caution to put them back in government with the increased influence they believe they deserve.

With more TDs, the PDs will undoubtedly want a bigger role in government, probably through securing a second full Cabinet seat (in the last Government, Mary Harney was a minister and Bobby Molloy was a junior minister who could be allowed sit - but not vote - at cabinet). For Fianna Fáil, to follow a major election victory by losing a Cabinet seat to the PDs would be a very difficult thing to swallow.

And the PDs are aware that Mr Ahern has options. He could probably lead a single-party minority government for close to a full Dáil term, knowing that it could only be defeated if the Opposition could contrive an issue to unite Fine Gael, Labour, the Green Party, Sinn Féin, Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party and an extraordinarily disparate group of independents.

So if he wanted to, he could spurn the PDs and their increased demands and opt for a single party government.

But the PDs know that Mr Ahern is cautious, and he laid great emphasis on the need for a stable government in his initial post-election comments yesterday. There is a difficult budgetary period coming up, and a Nice Treaty referendum to be pushed through. A minority government would lead to regular media stories about the latest Private Members' Motion set up by the Opposition to try to bring them down. The government would almost certainly survive, but an impression of instability would be created.

The PDs' belief is that Mr Ahern will see the PD price worth paying in exchange for five years of stable Government which would free him of troublesome independents with local demands. PD sources insisted last night that they had not begun to think about what they will seek from Mr Ahern in another Coalition.

But you can bet that Michael McDowell has begun to think about it, and it is understood that having been Attorney General, Mr McDowell would very much like a full Cabinet Ministry. But Liz O'Donnell could feel that her time has come too, after five years as a Minister of State.

Mr McDowell had an outstanding campaign. Not only did he stun all rivals and commentators by topping the poll in his Dublin South-East constituency, he set the tone for an extraordinarily successful national party campaign, and then led by example.

With the party's relevance being threatened by predictions of a Fianna Fáil majority, and polls predicting a possible electoral disaster for the PDs, a new strategy was required. The party insists this new strategy - warning of what might happen if Fianna Fail got into power on their own - had been planned in advance.

But it was Michael McDowell who personally launched this strategy in two parts, first making his "Ceausescu" attack on the Bertie Bowl, and then inviting press photographers to watch him climbing up lamp posts to hang up bright red posters warning of the dangers of a Fianna Fáil overall majority.

In the last days of the campaign, Mary Harney also ran a very personalised campaign, saying in interviews that the choice was whether to have Mary Harney in government or not.

The strategy worked as intended. Middle class Fine Gael voters, abandoning their traditional party, were looking for somewhere to go. The anti-Fianna Fáil pro stable government message from the PDs was just what they were looking for. Labour candidates in Dublin acknowledged yesterday that they too lost middle class support to the PDs on the basis, as Eamon Gilmore said yesterday, that they would "ride shotgun" on Fianna Fáil in government.

The PDs have therefore become the first minor party in coalition to gain seats at the end of that Government's term and benefit from the subsequent election. In advance of the election it was clear that there was high satisfaction with the Government.

But Fianna Fáil was scooping up all the credit: the PD campaign ensured they won a slice of it too.

Stability is the key motivating factor driving Mr Ahern towards doing a deal with the PDs. But policy plays a role too. Some in Fianna Fáil like to maintain the party is left of centre, but the Taoiseach has bought into the PD view of how to manage the economy. The presence of the PDs in Government will ensure that the Government will manage the economy in the way Mr Ahern wants. Policy will not cause any trouble in the negotiation of a new Government.

The PDs now have the opportunity to build further during the next Dáil term. Unless Fine Gael can recover from their electoral catastrophe, there is further scope to win middle class support. Predictions that the PDs would eclipse Fine Gael when they were formed in 1986 did not come to pass. However, the state of Fine Gael now makes it possible for the PDs to grow. At time of writing Mr Noel Grealish in Galway West and Mr Tim O'Malley in Limerick East are in strong contention for Dáil seats. Candidates such as Mr John Minihan in Cork and Ms Kate Walsh in Kildare North can work towards seats next time.

This has been the Progressive Democrats' third Houdini act. They were saved by entering Government in 1989 after an electoral hammering.

The same happened again when they were reduced to just four seats in 1997. Now they have achieved a remarkable result after their second period in government.

After 16 years in existence, rivals and commentators may soon have to give up predicting their demise.