Party's over for the PDs

Michael McDowell was largely but not entirely to blame for the Progressive Democrats' election debacle. Others contributed handsomely to the defeat and now there seems little point to the party's continuance By Adam Maguire


His first of many blunders on assuming the leadership of the Progressive Democrats in September 2006 was to remove Katharine Bulbulia as programme manager. The office of programme manager had survived the Taoiseach and Tánaiste from the previous Rainbow government and it was a crucial conduit between the two government parties.

Katherine Bulbulia, a former Fine Gael Senator, had been Mary Harney's programme manager from 1997. She was a lynch-pin of the coalition through her close liaison with Bertie Ahern's programme manager, Gerry Hickey, Her dismissal by Michael McDowell proved almost calamitous immediately.

For immediately there was the first of the two McDowell-wobbles over Bertie Ahern's finances. McDowell couldn't decide whether to stay in government or not, then having caused a hiatus was seen to back off, with the sotto voce comment to Bertie Ahern “we survived that”. A complicating factor in that first crisis was a breakdown in communication between the two government parties, arising from Katherine Bulbuila's departure.

Michael McDowell's political; judgement was always suspect – in spite of the brilliant strike in the 2002 campaign: “overall majority, no thinks”, which was credited (dubiously) with winning at least three seats for the PDs. Temperately he was/is volatile and he compounded this liability with the appointment of people whose political experience and, therefore, political judgement, was deficient.  

He brought in Cormac Lucey, as one of his political advisers who was one of his aides in the Department of Justice but Lucey had little political experience or cop-on and little understanding of the dynamics (such as they were) of the PDs.

Katherine Bulbulia was eventually replaced by John O'Brien, who had been a justice advisor to Harney in the past, but not until after the first crisis concerning Bertie Ahern's finances broke in late September 2006.

Even then John O'Brien's relative inexperience in the position of programme manager was a problem at the time of the second PD-wobble in the midst of the election campaign in May of this year. Although McDowell was hauled back by colleagues in the party from the brink of the hole he had dug himself (they pointed out the PDs had no where to go if they abandoned Fianna Fáil at that stage because of the vitriol of McDowell's attacks on Fine Gael and Labour) the absence of an established bridge with the main party of government was then a liability also.

It is acknowledged within the PDs that many of the problems McDowell faced were not entirely of his making. He had inherited a shambolic organisation nationally – the party was never properly organised from its inception in 1985 and there was poor communication between the leadership and party organisation around the country.  

These problems were never addressed by Harney during her 13-year leadership, nor was it by McDowell himself whom, as party president from 2000, was tasked with building the party's membership and local base.

By 2004 it was clear that the party's local strength had shown no sign of improvement, with the party failing to make any gains in that year's local election – its objective then was to double its local council seat share to 60. Nor was much done to remedy the organisational problems that were evident since then and the fault lay not with the party general secretary, John Higgins.

The conduct of the 2006 election campaign locally was another shambles. One candidate published all of his own canvassing material because the material sent from headquarters was entirely unsuitable.

One of the more notable examples of the disconnect between the base and headquarters was in Dublin South Central. There the party had one of its best vote-getters in the 2004 local elections, Cait Keane, who had taken 2,814 (a 9.6 per cent share) first preference votes in the Terenure-Rathfarnham constituency. However Keane decided not to run in the general election for personal reasons. The local organisation chose a local person Ben Doyle but the party leadership courted a few high-profile people such as David McWilliams and Eddie Hobbs – the latter of whom spoke at the party's conference in 2006. TCD economist Sean Barrett was also canvassed as well but then Frank McNamara emerged. He had been asked by Mary Harney, while she was still leader, to be a candidate in the 2007 election and this was done without any consultation with the local organisation.

According to people involved in the party at the time, Doyle was not aware of McNamara's candidacy while neither he nor McDowell had met him until minutes before the announcement of his candidature. In the end both candidates failed to get more than 500 votes each and were eliminated at the third count in a constituency the party had fared well in at the 2004 local elections.

Strong candidates in other constituencies would probably have fared better had they not been burdened by the PD tag. They party's image was damaged by a perception of it as uncaring and arrogant, all the more so from the time McDowell's negative campaigning hindered was also damaging – for instance a largely sensible party document on the environment was “ruined” (according to one candidate) by attacks on the Greens.

There were other problems.

Ian Noctor and Seamus Mulconry, who had managed communications for the party, left in late 2006 and early 2007 respectively. Media coverage was not monitored, there were no prompt rebuttals of opposing party assaults on the PDs, no on going media campaign. However those who were involved with the communications team say the party's size was the main reason for the poor coverage.

They point to the higher number of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael party activists who were able to contribute to phone-in shows on radio. And then there were claims by the party that RTÉ's coverage agenda – based on performance in the previous general election – discriminated unfairly against the PDs because its response to the Bertiegate election crisis was counted as part of the overall coverage allocated to the PDs in the course of the campaign – this mean that correspondingly less coverage was given to policy launches, for instance.

Added to all this was an ideological incoherence. The PDs were established initially as an anti-Charlie Haughey party, promoting radical policies on tax reductions and privatisation. The eclipse of Charlie Haughey robbed the party of one of its reasons for being. Then the ground was cut further from under them by the tax reduction programmes undertaken in the ten years from 1997 and the privitisations, some of which proved disastrous and unpopular.

McDowell's leadership offered no new policy initiatives and, anyway, the party was divided between those who were hard-line on economic issues and those concerned about the deterioration in social services. Some of the party high-flyers were politically all-over-the-place anyway, such as Tom Parlon, who had joined the PDs in 2002 entirely for opportunistic reasons. Anyway, there had emerged a consensus on all the major issues in Irish politics between all the establishment parties, including Labour, so the identify of the PDs was all the more obscure.

Aside from that the party was stiff in trauma over the self-induced crisis of the summer of 2006, when McDowell challenged Harney for the leadership. Very few of the Parliamentary party wanted McDowell, aside from Tom Morrissey, the others regarded Mary Harney as the party's main (only?) electoral asset. That crisis left scars, not healed at all by the quiet dignified withdrawal of Harney some months later and the “unanimous” election of McDowell.

The party is now close to extinction and in its death throes is even more divided than previously. The assault on Mary Harney by the party trustee Paul McKay who ridiculed Mary Harney for going back into government with Fianna Fáil is illustrative of the dysfunction that now prevails. As Harney herself pointed out in response, how could this now be an issue since the party had been in government happily (for the most part) with Fianna Fáil over the previous ten years?

With she (Harney) unwilling to continue as acting leader, the party is going to have to do with either Fiona O'Malley or Colm O'Gorman, neither of whom have any credibility in such a role. Fiona O'Malley has been regarded by the party as a loose cannon for quite some time and tales of viperous confrontations between her and Liz O'Donnell, at Parliamentary party meetings will not add to her stature.

Colm O'Gorman joined the PDs, seemingly because he was not love-bombed by Labour, which he originally thought of joining. He has no background in the hard-line politics of the PDs and little sympathy for the neo-liberal agenda pursued by the party. Tellingly, most of those who have left the party recently – Tom Parlon, Liz O'Donnell, Tom Morrissey and others – have expressed doubts about the party's capacity to survive.