21 November 2008

The PD party is over

In today’s edition, the Church of Ireland Gazette carries the following editorial comment:

The PD party is over

After 23 years, the Progressive Democrats are winding down and disbanding themselves. The party was launched in December, 1985 by Des O’Malley, promising a principled stand against corruption in politics (mainly within Fianna Fáil) and liberal positions on social issues such as divorce and contraception. Yet, they soon formed a coalition with Fianna Fáil, propping up Charles Haughey as Taoiseach, just as they uncritically propped up Bertie Ahern, even in his final days. Despite promises of a liberal social agenda, the PDs were marked by centre-right and sometimes right-wing positions on the economy, taxation, privatisation and – in recent years – spending on welfare, health and education.

At their first election in 1987, they took an impressive 12 per cent of the vote and 14 Dáil seats. In coalition with Fianna Fáil, they acquired influence out of all proportion to their size, especially in the economy. Yet, while they took credit for a low-tax, pro-business culture, it was forgotten that Labour’s Ruairí Quinn introduced the much-applauded corporation tax rate of 12.5% while he was Finance Minister.

Perhaps Pat Cox, with his liberal and visible pro-European vision, was the best leader the party never had. But he lost a bitter leadership contest to Mary Harney, who soon expressed the hope that Dublin would move “closer to Boston than Berlin”, adopting American free market models for the economy, health, education and welfare. She is largely responsible for the PDs never really becoming a liberal party in the classical European sense. Instead, she concentrated on extending private influence in healthcare, with the co-location of private hospitals on public hospital grounds and the privatisation of health insurance, while overseeing drastic cuts in spending on health and welfare.

The temperamental and oft-times bad-tempered leadership of Michael McDowell and Mary Harney’s unpopular agenda on health and welfare are among the reasons for the party’s disgrace at last year’s election, when six of the PDs’ eight Dáil seats were lost. The end was in sight for the PDs, and this month’s conference vote (201-161) accepted reality and said goodbye to the PDs. But who will take up the real liberal agenda for which, after all, there was no true passion?

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