PD leader faces daunting task to save party from extinction


ANALYSIS:Ciarán Cannon, the new PD leader, yesterday set out what looks like an impossible, unreachable, target for himself, writes Harry McGee.

'IT'S A great pleasure for me to hand over the baton of the leadership of the Progressive Democrats for a second time," Mary Harney quipped yesterday, adding that it's not often that one is asked to go around the track again. One certainty is that she won't be going around a third time.

The new leader, Senator Ciarán Cannon, is under no illusion about the uphill task he faces in rebuilding the party that Harney founded with Des O'Malley and Michael McDowell 22 years ago.

If he fails to revive its fortunes electorally next year, the Progressive Democrats will join the ranks of Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan, the National League Party and Democratic Left as smaller parties whose fortunes flared on the national stage for a time before they sank into inevitable extinction.

There was no euphemising, no glossing-over of words, in the opening passage of Cannon's acceptance speech yesterday.

"The task of rebuilding our party is a daunting one and, yes,here are those who will argue that it is an impossible one," he said.

You can take "those" to mean just about everybody else who is outside the PDs.

The woes of the PDs have been well documented and the obstacles now stacked up against it are all of Becher's Brook dimensions.

By dint of last year's electoral meltdown it has been forced - and this is unprecedented for an established parliamentary party - to go outside its Dáil representatives in its search for a leader. And the loyalty of one of the two remaining TDs, Noel Grealish, is conditional - he has admitted to having played "footsie" with Fianna Fáil in the wake of the 2007 election.

Nor, on the face of it, does Cannon automatically strike one as the Houdini-meets-Lazarus figure that is required. The new leader is a Senator of less than one year's standing (and not even elected to the position but nominated by the Taoiseach). And outside his home town of Loughrea and constituency of Galway East, he is hardly a household name (and would have been a relative unknown to many PD members before mid-February).

Moreover, five years ago he was not even involved in politics, only joining the PDs in 2003, some 12 months before the local elections.

And while he did well to win a seat on Galway County Council in 2004, his feat of garnering over 3,000 votes in last year's general election was not as dazzling a performance as some PDs suggest. It is still less than a third of the quota in conservative Galway East, and Cannon himself knows that he will have his work cut out to win a seat here in 2012.

And if that were not enough, the new leader yesterday set out what looks like an impossible, unreachable, target for himself. Like most commentators, he agrees that next year's local elections will be the test that decides whether the PDs survive or wither on the vine. If the party fails to make ground, he accepted, "people will have to sit down and take serious stock".

Unusually, Cannon yesterday said that the yardstick for failure would be less than about 35 seats. As the party currently holds 28 local authority seats across the country that is - to put it very mildly - a very big ask.

Winning 28 seats or less, he said, would constitute the second electoral failure in a very short space of time. Translating that into one clear sentence: Ciarán Cannon has some 14 months to gain at least seven extra council seats for the PDs as he leads from the Seanad, or else the party will become defunct. Phew!

However, the new leader has several factors playing in his favour. The first is that the party performed so abysmally last year that he has nothing to lose. Secondly, the very fact that the leadership was contested gave the remaining party loyalists a fillip.

Both Cannon and O'Malley campaigned vigorously and enthusiastically at the meetings for members held throughout the country. While one or two were sparsely attended (Tom Parlon's former stronghold of Laois-Offaly in particular), the membership did come out for others and that proved to be a morale-booster.

While Fiona O'Malley's profile was much higher (and she has the more appealing and colourful personality of the two), Cannon impressed members with the clearness of his strategic thinking, his grasp of detail and his ability to articulate how the party will have to change. His experience as a county council planning official for 14 years, in addition to being the chief executive of the Irish Pilgrimage Trust, also came to the fore.

In many ways, the political messages of both candidates were remarkably similar. Both believed the PDs had become too beholden to its parliamentary party pre-2007 to the exclusion of councillors and ordinary members. Cannon again vowed yesterday that councillors and members will be the driving force of the party over the next year.

Admitting that Seanad Éireann was not the ideal place for a party leader, he explained how his leadership would work. With the party committed to government, he will defer to Mary Harney's expertise in the area of health. However, she will act as a conduit in Cabinet for his views if he believes there are areas outside of health that require a certain approach.

It sounds complicated. Moreover, the Seanad isn't exactly the world's best forum for building a profile. Cannon said he realised that. "While I value the importance of having a high media profile, I place far more value on the interaction with our own members, and [making an impact] at the interpersonal rather than at the media level."

Cannon's more ambitious reforms include a possible name change and a "raft of new policies" (and you suspect some may be surprising). There was also another surprise yesterday in his revelation that Michael McDowell may return, not as a candidate, but as part of a policy-formation group.

Cannon emphasised his central thesis yesterday. "We have not been successful in selling our party. We have allowed ourselves to be pigeonholed as right-wing and uncaring."

Harney said her main piece of advice to her successor was: "When you are leader you have to do a lot of thinking on your own. Party membership does not always take you in the right direction. Leaders have to stand back and make decisions."

And in June 2009, you sense that one such lonely decision will be required.

Harry McGee is on the political staff of The Irish Times