PDs: a party that was much misunderstood


OPINIONWhy were the PDs hated so much by so many, when so often people agreed with their policies?, writes Jason O'Mahony

SOME YEARS ago, a friend introduced me to her brother, who had emigrated to the US and became involved in the Republican party. During lunch, he expounded some strong opinions as to his support for the death penalty, scrapping welfare and the right to bear arms.

She then casually mentioned that I was involved in the Progressive Democrats. In a fraction, his face turned from friendly to horrified, and he blurted out the word "fascist!"

It wouldn't be the first time my membership of the Progressive Democrats elicited that response, or ones similar to it.

As the party approaches its formal end, I can't help but thinking that the party I knew was never the party the rest of the country thought it was.

I became active in the party in the 1991 local election campaign in Dublin South East, the day after my Leaving Cert exams.

Having never been involved in politics before, and not coming from a political family, I joined a party that seemed to me to be pro-European, socially liberal and free market orientated.

What was unexpected was the absolute contempt in which the PDs were held by the establishment parties. FF people didn't like us because they saw us as turncoats, even, bizarrely, those of us who had never been in FF in the first place. FG didn't like us because we took their voters.

But with Labour, it was personal. Labour had always struck me as trying to make up for what it lacked in electoral prowess with moral certainty.

Labour was the party that "believed", as opposed to FF and FG who just wanted to be in power. Then we came along, and used the same moral language as Labour but with non-left policies, and the indignation it caused was astounding.

I remember being introduced to a member of Labour's frontbench who had just been re-elected. She greeted me warmly until my friend, a Labour member, announced I was a PD.

She actually dropped my hand in mid-greeting, her face turning to disgust and turned her back on me, leaving my friend mortified.

Whilst I had rarely encountered a reaction like that, more effort was spent by people assuming what the PDs stood for than by us communicating the reality.

The party's general council represented its membership. Both the media and those ideologically opposed to the party would have been stunned at the sort of debates that were commonplace.

Members calling for the nationalisation of building land, or savaging the party leader when modest reforms to the community employment schemes were proposed, demanding not less government spending, but more.

Even on the rare occasion when a right-wing solution like restoring the death penalty or taking a hard line on immigration was suggested, it was shouted down from the floor.

Although it is not conventional wisdom to admit it, I believe that the fate of the PDs was decided not by the 2007 election, but by the 2002 election.

The party won eight seats, and applauded itself without looking at who won those seats, and more importantly, where seats were not won. Whereas it is always difficult in Irish elections to separate the personal vote from the party vote, it was not unreasonable to suggest that the likes of Tom Parlon and Mae Sexton were elected despite the fact that they were PD candidates.

More importantly, the party's vote actually fell, and failed to make any inroads in middle-class areas in Dublin and Cork that in any other European country would be natural territory for a PD-style party.

Even in a good electoral climate, the party was failing to create a reliable hinterland for itself as every party needs for the bad days.

ThePDs' biggest failing was the assumption within the party that the public would inform itself as to what the PDs stood for. The party never managed to create a critical mass of voters who regarded themselves as PD voters.

Instead, the party resembled the Abbey theatre: many people had heard of it, and it got plenty of coverage in The Irish Times, but almost no one utilised it.

I was forever meeting people who supported more PD policies than I did, and yet it never occurred to them that they had to vote PD to get those policies! But in fairness, we were never great at asking them for those votes either. The PDs weren't perfect.

But Fianna Fáil never managed to restore the language or reintegrate the national territory.

Labour never managed to implement socialism.

Fine Gael never managed to do whatever it is they are trying to do, but the Progressive Democrats, in a much shorter lifetime, pretty much did what they set out to do.

• Jason O'Mahony was on the PDs' general council and ran for the PDs in the 1999 local elections