By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Amid the deaths of several giant US banks, the devouring of the last surviving demutualised British building societies by the Spanish and the collapse of the Anglo-American ‘model’ of capitalism, few people have paid much attention to another death, the unlamented demise of the Progressive Democrats in the Republic.
It is so delightfully ironic that they go down the tubes at the same time as the financial and economic system they extolled.
The party was mortally wounded in the June 2007 election when the voters stuffed its leader, Michael McDowell, but it took a year for the corpse to stop twitching.
In 2002 Theresa May MP, the British Conservative party chair, told her party that people called them “the nasty party”, that they would have to mend their ways if they ever wanted to get into government again because they remained “unrepentant, just plain unattractive”. She said, “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies”.
Unfortunately for the PDs, no-one gave the party the same message. They were Ireland’s nasty party but their arrogance prevented them ever listening to the electorate beyond their own narrow sectional interest group.
At the outset in 1985 they were a breakaway Fianna Fail group which couldn’t stomach Charles Haughey but at the same time knew they would never have office while Haughey was party leader.
When they teamed up with former Fine Gael right-wingers like McDowell it became clear that the PDs were intent on producing an Irish version of Thatcherism.
It didn’t take long before the lure of office brought them down off their high moral ground into a coalition government in 1989 with the very man they had so reviled, none other than the dreaded Haughey.
From then on their existence prevented Fianna Fail ever again having an overall majority in the Dail, the PDs always managing half a dozen or so TDs.
It was the malign influence of the PDs which forced Fianna Fail further and further to the right in economics, though many would say Fianna Fail didn’t have to be pushed too hard.
However, more importantly it was the PDs’ influence which left no safety net for the poor in the south and led to the Republic becoming one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. The PD attitude was best expressed by Michael McDowell when he said that inequality was not necessarily a bad thing in that it could act as an incentive.
Mind you, Mary Harney wasn’t far behind when she told a US audience in 2000 that she preferred to adopt policies closer to those of Boston than Berlin because while European economic models produced more equality than the US model, they also had higher unemployment.
That was then. Now her party has imploded along with the US model.
One aspect of the horrible PDs often ignored is that they were the first openly partitionist Irish political party. So great was their impatience and frustration with northern nationalists that some of them were openly unionist.
It is still too early to assess their full impact on the moves towards peace since 1992 but they were a problem party always ready to sell nationalists short in the naive belief that this would get rid of the north as a problem.
Certainly we know they strenuously opposed any overtures towards Sinn Féin and that Haughey had to do his damndest to keep information about northern manoeuvres from the PDs in his government.
At one point in the early years of this century Michael McDowell’s anti-Sinn Féin speeches for southern consumption were in danger of creating difficulties for Trimble’s unionists who were going to have to share power with republicans.
Because the documents aren’t public yet we don’t know whether the PDs prevented the Good Friday Agreement being more advantageous to nationalists. We do know the PDs wouldn’t have backed Bertie Ahern in pushing harder against the British.
All in all, with their callous, uncaring free-market economics, their lust for privatisation, low taxation and remorseless reduction of benefits, the PDs introduced a meanness into Irish politics.
Of course often Fianna Fail was happy for the PDs to take the flak for unpopular decisions but the PDs relished their role. Good riddance nasty party.