Loss of Molloy an enormous blow to Progressive Democrats' poll hopes

 

The resignation of Bobby Molloy has moved the Progressive Democrats closer to the line between relevance and redundancy, writes Mark Brennock.

Until yesterday morning, the Progressive Democrats could reasonably have expected to return with three Dáil seats after the election, and hoped to win a further two. The resignation of Bobby Molloy has reduced each of these figures by one. For a party of their size, that is an enormous blow.

With three seats, the party could still hope to be in a position to make the difference between an unstable and a stable government and then to have a disproportionate influence in government, as they have had in the past five years. Fianna Fáil's opinion poll performance has led to predictions that that party will come close to achieving an overall majority, but not quite get there. Hence the reasonable PD hope that the result would place them in a pivotal position once again.

But with one of their three most likely seats now almost certainly gone, that hope has dwindled but not vanished. Should they return as a two-seat party the Dáil arithmetic would have to fall very precisely for them to make the difference between a shaky administration and a solid one. They could end up the same size as the Green Party, and considerably smaller than any loose association of independents. And in any coalition government, their influence - and claim on the Tánaiste's position - would be bound to be less.

Much recent speculation about the election result has relied almost exclusively on local constituency factors. This has been fuelled by a plethora of opinion polls commissioned by the media, and by reports purporting to reveal the outcome of private polls commissioned by Fianna Fáil. However, the national political positioning of the parties and their policy manifestos will have a major impact once the campaign gets going, and for the PDs, the national perception of them as the party of high standards in public life is hugely important.

A strong national campaign could still give a lift to some PD candidates currently seen as having outside chances of taking seats. But the Molloy affair has rocked party morale, and there is uncertainty over whether it will affect the perception of the party as the one of unimpeachable standards in public life.

It was ironic that in an article in this newspaper yesterday - written before the Molloy affair broke - Mary Harney positioned the PDs as the party that stood against "a certain degeneration in public behaviour which worries people and could undermine our progress".

She wrote of the effort she and her party had put in over five years "into enforcing the standards people want for Ireland and our life together as a community."

The PDs would have hoped to benefit from any emergence of standards and corruption issues in the course of the campaign. It cannot yet be judged whether the Molloy affair will now have a negative impact on the party's national standing.

Mr Molloy's enthusiasm to ensure that a letter relating to a convicted serial rapist had been received by the judge in the case before he passed sentence may ultimately be seen as a poor judgment, rather than a wrongful attempt to influence the course of justice.

However, it emerged yesterday that Mr Molloy wrote to the Minister for Justice last year enclosing a letter from Ms Anne Naughton, the sister of the rapist, concerning the case against her brother. Mr O'Donoghue says he wrote back to Mr Molloy quite properly saying he could not comment on a case before the courts, and took no action.

Mr Molloy forwarded another letter from Ms Naughton to Mr O'Donoghue in January this year, this time asking to know the date on which her brother's appeal would be heard. Mr O'Donoghue's office asked the court service about this and was told there was no record of an appeal having been lodged.

Then last month - a year after the first contact - Mr Molloy's office contacted the Department of Justice seeking to find out if the judge in the case had received a letter from Ms Naughten.

This led to the first phone call to the judge, the providing of the judge's phone number to Mr Molloy's official, and her call to the judge.

Mr Molloy's Galway West constituency is among the hardest fought in the State, and constituency work is a massive preoccupation for each candidate contesting every vote. Politicians go to great lengths to appease constituents asking them to liaise with the State or officials on their behalf. In this case, Mr Molloy clearly went a length too far.

Any damage to the party's image will be felt in its handful of key target constituencies. Their strongest electoral prospect is Mary Harney, party leader and Tánaiste, who has moved from Dublin South-West to the new three seat Dublin Mid-West.

That constituency contains the area of her old constituency from which she pulled the most votes, and her local opponents from all parties believe she will be re-elected.

Liz O'Donnell in Dublin South is also seen as likely to retain her seat, but in this most volatile constituency nothing is certain. Labour's Eithne Fitzgerald will put in a strong challenge to regain the seat she lost in 1997, but Fine Gael's Alan Shatter is seen as more vulnerable should Ms Fitzgerald be successful. Ms O'Donnell is seen as likely, but not absolutely certain, to be re-elected.

Mr Molloy's Galway West seat was seen as under threat even before this week's events, but most local observers believed he would hold on. His decision not to contest it means the party will lose some of the strong personal vote he won over 37 years in the Dáil.

He brought some of this vote from Fianna Fáil, and his party also attracted some traditional Fine Gael voters. It would be a truly extraordinary achievement for the party to hold this seat now.

The party says it has high hopes for former farmer's leader Tom Parlon in Laois-Offaly, and the Attorney General, Michael McDowell, in Dublin South East. Neither can be ruled out, but the odds are against both. Party figures insist they have three other prospects in Ms Mae Sexton (Long- ford/Roscommon), Tim O'Malley (Limerick East) and John Minihan (Cork North Central), but their prospects are remote.

So if everything went wrong for them, the PDs would face the horrific prospect of returning with just one Dáil representative. They have survived and prospered after past predictions of their demise, but now face their sternest test.

Mark Brennock is Political Correspondent of The Irish Times