Progressive Democrats deserve a dignified send-off


A living funeral is a gathering of people to remember and honour someone who is about to die. Hosting such events has become a growing trend in recent years, particularly in the United States. Maybe it's now time for the Progressive Democrats to have a living funeral.

The notion of a living funeral was popularised in Mitch Albom's best-selling book Tuesdays with Morrie, which told of the author's conversations with his terminally ill friend Morris Schwartz. When Schwartz first suggested to his family that he wished to host a living funeral they objected; although they knew his death was near, they were in denial.

Many in the Progressive Democrats currently find themselves in the same position. Traumatised by the results of last May's election, the membership shows all the signs of bereavement-induced stress. The party has experimented with various strategies to lengthen its life, but eight months after that disastrous election result, its condition still appears terminal.

When Mary Harney reluctantly agreed to resume the party leadership last June, she, like everybody else, expected it to be for a short period. Last autumn the party stalled the election of a new leader and spent most of the early winter dithering about whether to introduce rule changes designed to widen the pool of potential leadership contenders. Now it appears that the Progressive Democrats' least-known parliamentarian, Senator Ciarán Cannon, is to have the massive task of regenerating the party thrust upon his shoulders when he should be concentrating on winning a Dáil seat.

Mary Harney is not contesting the next election. Noel Grealish is openly flirting with Fianna Fáil. Fiona O'Malley is somewhat politically detached and has had her prospects of regaining a Dáil seat further narrowed by the recent redrawing of constituencies. Party headquarters is overstretched and underfunded. The party's town, county and city councillors are exposed, facing local elections in just 15 months. A large number of Progressive Democrat local representatives have already made approaches to, or have been approached by, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael (or both).

When party trustee Paul Mackay sent his recent "do or die" letter to the membership, he must have known its contents would end up in the media. Mackay's action made it almost inevitable that the Progressive Democrats' prospects for survival became a high-profile news story again.

Mackay's suggestion in the letter that the party could save itself by withdrawing from Government is naive. Moving across the chamber won't solve the party's problems.

If the party has no appetite for revival, then Mackay suggested it should begin an orderly wind-up. He suggested "the party's existence should be acknowledged and celebrated in a meaningful and appropriate fashion". Although neither he nor the party is ever likely to describe it as such, Mackay is effectively suggesting a living funeral.

Of course, many would gloat at the demise of the PDs, including their ideological opponents, media critics and even some in Fianna Fáil who still resent the frequent demands for a "head on a plate" in earlier years. These sentiments, however, should not prevent the Progressive Democrats from taking an opportunity before disbanding to thank its members and mark its achievements.

Many have good reason to be thankful for the life of the Progressive Democrats. Among these are motorists and small businesses that appreciate the party's work in tackling insurance costs; late-night revellers and Christmas shoppers grateful for the hoards of taxis now available for hire; and Dubliners breathing relatively fresh smoke-free air. Insurance reform, taxi deregulation, and the ban on smoky coal may have come to pass even if the Progressive Democrats never existed, but we can never be sure and there is every reason to believe they came about much sooner because of the decisions of Bobby Molloy and Mary Harney. Similarly, the end to IRA involvement in criminality may have come over time, but were it not for Michael McDowell's presence in the Department of the Justice, then there is every risk Tony Blair and maybe even Bertie Ahern would have negotiated their way to the restoration of government in Northern Ireland without that essential prerequisite.

The Progressive Democrats can also justifiably claim some of the credit for Ireland's economic transformation, not least because they persuaded the political system generally of the logic of low rates of income tax.

The eulogies at such a living funeral would also no doubt identify Mary Harney's more recent achievements in the Department of Health as significant. It may not yet be apparent to many outside the party, but in time the significance of her work there will be more widely recognised. The completion of a contract with hospital consultants this week will bring that date closer. Ahern would have no difficulty with Mary Harney staying in Cabinet and in charge of the Department of Health as an Independent TD. Without a party to worry about, she could focus for the remaining period of her last term on the challenges which reforming the health services will continue to present.

Many small political groupings have appeared and disappeared. Those that have not been swallowed up in mergers or re-mergers with bigger parties have withered away, usually decimated at the polls, debt-ridden and riven with acrimony. That was the fate of Clann na Poblachta in the 1950s and of Aontacht Éireann in the 1970s.

The Progressive Democrats deserve better and should give themselves a more dignified send-off.