Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Demise of PDs an opportunity for Fine Gael/Libertas

The death of the Progressive Democrats, long envisaged for 23 years, has finally arrived. Last night's by all accounts emotional PD meeting to discuss the future of the party merely gave a stay of execution until October. It would seem that the party's four Oireactas members (Harney, Grealish, O'Malley and Cannon) were more at one on winding down the party than its councillors. But the party has lost prominent councillors in just over a year since the General Election, during which the party sailed rudderless for most of that time. With Mary Harney rejecting the poison-chalice of returning to the leadership she vacated in 2006 in favour of McDowell, and with such a long interregnum in a party none of its elected members wanted to lead, it is evidence that the viability of the party was gone, as was the stomach for the fight needed to soldier on in the context of a party-system that has. since 1921, frustrated all attempts by microparties to survive the tribal-pulls of the Civil War parties and, to a lesser extent, Labour. Indeed Labour itself came quite close to extinction in 1987, scoring only 5% of the FPV, but managed to hold only 12 seats, but which left it the fourth largest party in Dail Eireann until the PD's disasterous performance in the 1989 General Election, when its 14 seats were reduced to 6. It was always ironic that except in 2002, the PDs entered government when they lost seats, while departing it when they gained seats. And yet, given what has transpired last year and since, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that there are a lot of "what ifs" now echoeing in the minds of PD activists. What if Mary Harney had not re-entered government with Fianna Fáil in 2002? What if Des O'Malley had not announced his support for Mary Harney while Pat Cox was in Vienna? What if Liz O'Donnell had succeeded her, rather than the polarising Michael McDowell? What if they hadn't botched the 1997 manifesto launch on downsizing the public-sector and helping single-mothers who wanted to remain in the home? These questions are of course academic at one level, but they may also contain important lessons for other microparties that emerge, as they occasionally do (like Clann na Poblachta/Talamhan, Farmers Party etc.) about the balance to be struck between principle and power.

The fault for the demise of the PDs can only partly be laid at their door. Entering govt in 2002 when FF didn't need them and when their ability to implement their economic agenda (especially the wideranging privatisation in the 2002 manifesto) was almost nonexistent was a terrible mistake. They chose non-economic portfolios which changed how they were identified by the public from being associated with economic growth to the failings in our justice system and health-service instead. They allowed themselves to become FF's mudguards. FF treated their proposals for cafe-bars with open contempt, and procrastination on Aer Lingus privatisation for four years. McDowell alienated 2 sources of transfers before the 2007 election - FG voters annoyed that they didn't pull out of govt over Bertiegate, and FF voters annoyed that they showed signs of being unsure of whether to remain in govt with FF. FF voters are historically reluctant to transfer to parties perceived as hostile to FF. Much - though by no means all - of their economic agenda has been poached by FF and FG e.g. income tax cuts, some privatisation (though nothing on the scale the PDs wanted). This combined with the other factors helped these parties ween some "soft" PD voters back to those parties who were usually their natural political-homes anyway. A hate campaign in most of the print media - notably the Star. Part of this was a vendetta against McDowell for defeating them in the Citizenship referendum, while part of it was that the anti-FF press saw the PDs as the weakest link, whose destruction would prevent FF remaining in govt. Many microparties had their moment of glory at around 10% before fizzling out over a 20 yr or so period. The end of the Northern conflict undermined their appeal to voters attracted to anti-Sinn Féin rhetoric, while the Good Friday Agreement, supported by all the Dail parties, meant that the PDs were no longer offering a unique stance on the Northern conflict. Ironically, in this respect the party was a victim of its own success. As someone who voted for Colm O'Gorman in 2007, I have to say that I was nonetheless disappointed with the party-manifesto that year. Where was the far-reaching programme of privatisation of the 2002 campaign (including ESB and Bord Gáis)? And why is Harney trying to push through Risk Equalisation payments by the VHI's competitors in the health-insurance industry - something that surely flies in the face of the competition that the party always claimed to stand for? After the surrender to Fianna Fáil over café-bars, it looked to many voters that the party no longer represented something distinct enough from Fianna Fáil to be worth supporting. To paraphrase Michael McDowell they lost their radicalism and so became redundant.

The Left are already toasting the death of the party they love to hate. Fergus Finlay, who coined the phrase about talks with Sinn Féin not being "worth a penny candle", told George Hook on Newstalk that it was "good riddance" to the PDs, despite his admiration for some of its figures like Des O'Malley. SF Cavan-Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said "We may be witnessing the dying days of the Progressive Democrats and truly progressive people in Ireland will shed no tears over their demise.". But maybe they are celebrating too soon. It is arguable that what was rejected in 2007 was not neo-liberal economics per se, but rather the failure of PD ministers to implement them in their portfolios at Justice and Health. An Irish Independent poll published shortly before the election found a small plurality in favour of hospital-colocation. But Harney's laudible plan has taken an eternity to get off the ground, and still has not really done so in a major way. She will probably be remembered as the woman who sacrificed her party for the overriding goal of health-service reform, but there are questions to be asked as to why it took four years to negotiate a new consultants' contract, and whether it would have been delivered quicker in Coalition with a weaker Fianna Fáil that actually depended on the PD's for survival in government. No. What was rejected in 2007 was not neo-liberal economics, of which the only real element in the party manifesto was cuts in the bottom and marginal-rates of income-tax. to 38% and 19%. The reasons for the rejection of the PDs had nothing to do with economics, and everything to do with the poaching of their ideology on taxation, the lack of health-service reform, the inheritance of the mistakes of previous Fianna Fáil health-ministers in that department (including nursing-home charges) but which were blamed on Harney, notably by the vicious cartoon in the Irish Star portraying Harney as digging up a graveyard to make the dead pay for their nursing-home charges. The reality is that no party was really offering a neo-liberal platform to the electorate last year. McDowell seemed to vacillate between supporting the re-election of the Coalition with Fianna Fáil on the one hand, and supporting withdrawl on the other hand, and voters do not like feeling that their differing motives for voting for or transferring to a party are being manipulated for party-advantage. They saw through McDowell's spin, and while the party did not deserve what happened to it perhaps the leadership did. But there is still, I believe, a gap in the Irish electoral-market for an economically liberal party, and I trust in time it will arrive, whether in the form of a continuing shift to the Right in Fine Gael (signs of which include Richard Bruton's plan for a quango cull), along with support for an immigration policy that is fair but firm. The question is whether Labour would play a similar role to that of the Fianna Fáil statists since 2004 by stymying an attempt Thatcherisation of the Irish economy? In that context, I think the future of Libertas, with its support for economic freedom and the defence of democracy in the European Union, may be crucial in determining the future electoral-landscape in a state and electoral-system in which the politically-small is sometimes the beautiful. At a time when the public-finances are €6 billion in debt, the cost and inefficiency of the bloated public-sector, with monopolies spanning the electricity, to the gas, and bus-sectors, are again coming under the media-radar, notably in the Irish Independent which recently called for a large privatisation programme that could raise €8 billion euros. As we approach October's emergency-budget, it is imperative that Minister Lenihan remove this albatross from around the necks of the private-sector taxpayer. If he fails to do so, then others may have to offer the country the transition from Big to Small Government that it desperately needs in these choppy economic-waters.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hurray the PDs are gone! I suppose the real reason they shutting up shop, is, that their donors have stopped donating, and it isn't worthwhile to keep the party going because they're too stupid to think of an alternate way of funding their party withour donations. ie make the British taxpayer pay!

kerdasi amaq