The demise of the PDs


IT IS difficult to convey to a younger generation the confluence of significant events which led to the formation of a new political party, the Progressive Democrats, almost a quarter of a century ago. It is impossible today to convey the engagement which its founding fathers - Des O'Malley, Mary Harney, Michael McDowell, Bobby Molloy and others - had with the electorate at public meetings.

 For those of us who recall those times, it is still chilling to imagine what political life might have been like without them: if there weren't those tribunals to investigate corrupt payments to politicians, or if there was one-party government over those years. The PDs did the State some service even if they were villified as a party. But it is time to stand them down.

When the remaining members of the PDs gather for a final farewell next month they should celebrate what the party has achieved during those 23 years of existence, rather than dwell on the mistakes and slow decline of recent years. The party and its politicians have influenced the direction of Irish politics in a way that went far beyond their electoral strength. Ireland has become a better, more confident and prosperous place - in spite of the present international uncertainties - in the years they were around.

Born out of bitter divisions within Fianna Fáil, during the nationalistic and social tumult of the 1980s, the party "stood by the Republic" and went on to champion lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and the liberal agenda. With a massive and increasing national debt; unemployment and emigration rising and public confidence in short supply, the party had an immediate impact. Drawing support from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael it won 14 Dáil seats in the 1987 general election; eclipsed the Labour Party and transformed the political landscape. Two years later, it entered a coalition government with Fianna Fáil, having unsuccessfully campaigned with Fine Gael on a joint electoral programme.

As a small tax-reform party with a social agenda, the PDs fluctuated for years on the cusp of failure, repeatedly confounding its many critics. It was highly adaptable and occasionally opportunist, espousing high standards in public office. Its very existence was regarded as a direct threat by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and they adapted their financial policies to neutralise it. In spite of that, the PDs played a pivotal role: persuading Fianna Fáil to drop its core value of opposition to coalition; bringing down Charlie Haughey as party leader; encouraging Charlie McCreevy in his tax cutting policies and becoming embedded with Bertie Ahern in government.

But time, energy and public support eventually ran out after 10 continuous years in government with Fianna Fáil. The PDs turned out to be a one-generation party of conviction politicians. Its control of the high moral ground was compromised when it flip-flopped over support for Bertie Ahern's unorthodox financial dealings in the general election campaign. And when their leader, Michael McDowell, abandoned them, and Mary Harney declined to fill the void, there could be no coming back.