It’s the end of the road for Ireland’s Progressive Democrats

So long it’s been good to know yuh

On November 8th 2008 Ireland’s Progressive Democrats did something unusual; they voted themselves out of existence.

The PD’s formed in 1986. Then, Irish politics was dominated by two parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and party allegiance depended on attitudes towards the Civil War. Both parties embraced corporatist economics and Ireland’s economy was a mess. Culturally the Catholic church still dominated.

Formed by a group of Fianna Fail members, led by Des O’Malley, disgusted by the corrupt leadership of Charles Haughey and a couple of high profile members of Fine Gael, the PD’s sought to inject ideology into Irish politics. A small presence in the Dial, peaking with 11 seats in 1989, Ireland’s proportional election system saw the PD’s enter a coalition government with Fianna Fail.

The PD’s pushed on Fianna Fail the free market approach of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to resuscitate Ireland’s economy. Business taxes, 30% in the UK, went to 10% and the Celtic Tiger began to roar. Government spending fell from 30% of GDP in 1990 to 25% in 2000. In the same period economic growth rose from 2% annually to 11% and unemployment fell from 12% to 4%.

The PD’s liberalism extended from the economic to the social sphere. By the end of their first spell in government in 1992, the PD’s had helped liberalise abortion laws. Back in government in 1997, under the first female leader of an Irish party, Mary Harney, divorce became legal with PD support.

The PD’s social attitudes chimed with a broader reassessment of Irish nationality. Long based on the twin pillars of nationalism and Catholicism, these were questioned from the late 1980’s. ‘Father Ted’ and Sinead O’Connor mocked ascetic Catholicism with differing degrees of severity as the PD’s social stance challenged it directly.

Michael McDowell, the PD’s spokesman on foreign affairs, took a strong line against Sinn Fein and the IRA just as nationalism too came to be questioned in the south. The Cranberries song ‘Zombie’ discarded the mythologizing of ‘The Foggy Dew’ to cast a jaded eye over the Easter Rising. The popular film ‘The Commitments’ ignored the national question altogether, a far cry from Yeats’ Cathleen Ní Houlihan who said of the nationalists “The people shall hear them forever”. The Irish were no longer listening.

But the PD’s were never able to expand their support much beyond middle class south Dublin and Limerick, Des O’Malley’s old powerbase. Fianna Fail took the credit for the Celtic Tiger and at the 2007 election the PD’s lost 6 of their 8 seats. At a meeting a meeting in November, considering their work done, the PD’s disbanded.

R. F. Foster wrote of a “pragmatic new Ireland” determined “to live aggressively in the present”. In government for 13 of their 23 years, the PD’s played a vital role in bringing this new Ireland about economically and socially. Journalist Ruth Dudley Edwards says “The PD’s had a short but glorious life. Once they had brought the Fianna Fail party to its senses, they became electorally expendable”. The party is over, but it was good while it lasted.

Printed in London Student, vol 29 issue 8, 02/02/09