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Michael McDowell: Is it time for return of the Progressive Democrats?

Recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll shows FF and FG trailing far behind Sinn Féin

There is a very different tone to RTÉ’s advertising these days. Apart from exhortations to buy a TV licence “brought to you from the Government of Ireland”, there is a plethora of State or semi-State advertising covering a vast spectrum of campaigns – from “Your Mental Health” and sexual harrassment to winter windscreen-wiper maintenance, from farm safety to internet fraud and from domestic abuse prevention to warnings about unlicensed gas maintenance men and unregistered estate agents, and everywhere else in between.

The majority of advert breaks on RTÉ radio seem composed of this kind of State preaching or television licence commercials or advertisement of other radio programmes. Whether the national braodcaster goes with its begging bowl to State departments or agencies, or whether there is an unspoken political directive to State agencies and departments to use up unspent funds on advertising campaigns, or whether the private commercial sector has simply moved its advertising budgets elsewhere, the net result is that RTÉ has become heavily dependent on the State and on its licence fee to survive in admittedly difficult times.

That trend carries dangers for RTÉ’s editorial independence. The licence fee model of broadcasting finance is supposed to underpin editorial independence. It has now become obsolete and needs to be replaced by a universal household levy collected in the same way as local property tax.

Has the Covid-19 pandemic ... allowed us to consider it normal to have so much behaviour-changing advertising made part of our daily lives?

But the deeper trend in State advertising of policy goals needs to be examined as well. Are we becoming increasingly used to receiving a form of daily exhortatory propaganda decided upon by whom? Has the Covid-19 pandemic, which was an emergency that could justify unusual levels of public information and health propaganda, allowed us to consider it normal to have so much behaviour-changing advertising made part of our daily lives? Would the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland allow any non-State body or grouping the right to use broadcast advertising to contradict or even query government, departmental or State agency policy in the same way that a newspaper might carry full-page campaign adverts for vegans and others?


It is one thing for politicians to articulate their ideas and policies; it is entirely different to permit the elected Government to use public revenues to fashion social “group think”. Democratic discourse requires the former; there is something Orwellian about the latter.

There has been a sea change in political discourse since the onset of Covid-19. Some have seen the pandemic as a possible catalyst for widespread political change – a game changer economically and socially. The massive programme of State interventions to protect the weakest and most vulnerable sections of society from the effects of lockdown, which is financed by borrowing, has created a sense of indifference to the economic consequences of saying yes to every demand on the exchequer for post-Covid-19 recovery programmes and expenditure.

There have been significant disruptions in the supply of energy and commodities as well as disruption to employment patterns. We were assured by central bankers that inflationary pressures would be temporary. But now inflation and interest rates seem destined to rise significantly and to do so in the medium term. There is a lot of paper money sloshing about in the aftermath of quantitative easing, both nationally and internationally. This is not a healthy or sustainable economic environment.

Our politics have responded in a very weak way to all of these challenges. The unique FF-FG alliance with the Greens has brought about a strange competition in Government itself to hunt down fickle political support. The recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll showed Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael knocked back and far behind Sinn Féin. All the Coalition parties are playing a game of backbench discontent and dog-whistle briefing to burnish their identities. And that is nothing new, as I know myself.

If, or when, that penny drops with the electorate, Fine Gael hopes of eclipsing Fianna Fáil may fade

But this time Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael face a dark horizon. Does either of them see a pathway to being the largest party in a coalition formed after the next election? Could either of them survive in an election promising more of the same? While Fine Gael may have hoped until recently to emerge as the bigger of the two, and may still hope to do so, their individual shares of public support suggest that neither is on course to nominate the next taoiseach. And if, or when, that penny drops with the electorate, Fine Gael hopes of eclipsing Fianna Fáil may fade.

Does that mean that Mary Lou is a shoo-in for taoiseach? Nothing is inevitable in Irish politics. On the second last page of Saving the Nation by Ciara Meehan and Stephen Collins, a recently published history of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar is quoted as fearing something re-emerging in the political space once occupied by the Progressive Democrats.

Middle Ireland may want such an alternative rather than have a choice between the current Coalition and Sinn Féin.