Cosy niche on the centre-right up for grabs

 
 

The dissolution of the Progressive Democrats has opened a gap in Irish politics and Eoin Martin examines who might snap up this valuable real estate.

Could Declan Ganley be the new Michael McDowell? The final demise of the Progressive Democrats has certainly created some space in the political landscape that is unlikely to be left vacant for long. The disappearance of another small Irish party may well herald the arrival of a new radical player or it might simply allow a return to more traditional civil war lines between the big parties.

Whether you liked them or not, the Ps certainly managed to make their presence felt in their 23 years of existence. 14 of those years were spent  in government, always with senior cabinet positions.

Whether they actually brought about changes to Ireland’s tax policies themselves or not, they undoubtedly got their way in that Ireland became the lowtax, enterprise-friendly, open economy they were promoting before anyone else was.

Progressive Democrats were not always for everyone. They were seen as the party of the wealthy that favoured regressive consumption taxes and privatised public services.

Michael McDowell was viewed by some as downright draconian and sometimes racist in his role as Minister for Justice, particularly when it came to immigration reform.

It could be said the reason McDowell and Mary Harney, the current Minister for Health, attracted so much criticism, is that because unlike their government colleagues, they were genuinely willing to put their heads above the parapet and initiate controversial and radical measures. No PD leader ever portrayed themselves as a Bertie-like figure who was all things to all men but impossible to nail down on principles.

The loss of the PDs is therefore a loss to the country as a whole and not just the PD support base. The decision to dissolve the party was the right one. It was a shadow of its former self and could no longer offer a viable political platform into the future. Nonetheless, we’ve lost a party that knew better than most what it stood for and that counts for a lot.

Being radical and effective was very important to the identity of the PDs and those characteristics in particular suffered after the 2002 election. The party became too closely associated with Fianna Fáil as well as making itself increasingly toxic through its involvement with health and the HSE. Swing voters forgot why they used to distinguish the PDs from the otherwise seemingly similar Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour options.

In June this year, Declan Ganley’s Libertas organisation provided a timely reminder that other people can play at the radical and effective game too. Like the PDs, Libertas is a right of centre movement. There is increasing talk that the group will run candidates in the European elections next year, quite possibly on a pan-European basis.

It’s unlikely that many on the left will shed tears over the demise of the PDs but perhaps they should. Maybe they would be better off with the devil they know. At least when the PDs were formed in 1985, everyone knew who they were and where they had come from.

Most of the party’s TDs were disaffected Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael activists. It was also a help that the PDs spelled out their policy positions very clearly and for the most part stuck to them over the years.

Libertas ticks the box of being a contrarian, consensus-challenging voice in the otherwise all too homogenous landscape of Irish politics. That in itself is a good thing for democracy and choice. It forces everyone else to up their game in defence of their beliefs. It would also be good however to know more about Libertas. What exactly is their agenda, who backs them, and what are their primary interests in Ireland or overseas?

Determining who will feast on the spoils of the PD’s carcass depends on who can best do what the PDs once did so well

The passage of the PDs into the pages of history is likely to have more immediate effects on the running of government in this country. The PD element of the ruling coalition has been underperforming for some time. Charlie McCreevey was said to be a PD in all but name and many economists now point to the fact that the move away from his style of economics between 2002-04 was the time the Celtic Tiger started to weaken.

It seems likely in the short term that Brian Cowen will ask Mary Harney to stay on as Minister for Health. Apart from the fact that nobody else dares to sup this poisoned chalice, Mr Cowen also undoubtedly realises that the PDs under Mary Harney had a distinct health strategy and Fianna Fáil does not. If Mary Harney departs from the cabinet at the local and European elections next year as seems likely, she will be depriving it of one of its most experienced and imaginative, not to mention brave members.

The combination of the government’s weakness and the sudden vacuum on the centre right further strengthens the hand of Fine Gael. A second recent poll shows the party are making considerable gains and have the highest overall popularity rating. There is an ideal opportunity now for them to simultaneously retake the ground they lost in the 1980s to the PDs while also offering a more moderate alternative to Libertas.

The big problem would appear to be Enda Kenny who is not exactly basking in the reflected glory of his party’s success. Mr Kenny has done well to re-energise the party but has failed on a personal level to inspire the confidence of voters. In some ways his approach to the last election may have been too superficial. He tried to play Bertie’s game and was beaten by the master.

Determining who will feast on the spoils of the PD’s carcass depends on who can best do what the PDs once did so well. They distinguished themselves from everyone else and convinced the electorate they were smarter and more competent. Libertas and Fine Gael seem well placed to advance if they can emulate that. Hopefully if nothing else, they will prove no less entertaining than the PDs.

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