Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Power won over principles and led to the PDs' demise

THE overblown debate on the demise of the Progressive Democrats has lacked any clear recollection of why they were there in the first place; how well and for how long the party's contribution worked, and what caused it to implode.

It was not necessary for it to decline the way it has, and so rapidly. Its departure is regrettable. It has had an enviable political history, involved in power for many more years than in opposition during its 23-year history. It could have been saved, even after the catastrophe of Michael McDowell. And it has undoubtedly left a vacuum which may encourage Declan Ganley and Libertas to move more directly into the political arena. When Desmond O'Malley was expelled from Fianna Fail in the spring of 1985, three things happened. The first and most compelling at the time was his harsh judgment of Charles Haughey. This defined his own future, irreversibly, by condemning in outspoken terms Haughey's "fitness for public office".

He then dealt with the circumstances within Fianna Fail; making clear that, in his view, under Haughey all independence of thought, all debate on issues, would represent disloyalty or treachery. Paranoia obsessed the leadership of the party and O'Malley pointed out that this affected all people in politics and had implications for other political parties and for democracy itself.

His own view of politics was that parties had to embrace argument, difference and the discussion of alternatives, otherwise democracy did not work.

The third issue raised then, in the immediate aftermath of O'Malley's expulsion, was the prospect of a new party. This was inescapable after the things that O'Malley had said. At the time, in 1985, more than midway through the FitzGerald-Spring administration, there was uncertainty about the prospect for Haughey regaining power.

He had already demonstrated a remarkable capacity for losing elections, not winning them.

Nevertheless, given the problems faced by the country, starting a new party was a serious step and O'Malley took it later that year -- primarily to turn his personal rejection of Haughey as a trustworthy political leader into a political one.

He was not concerned with alliances or electoral opportunities. He was concerned with principle. Haughey fought but failed to win the 1987 election, fighting a poor personal campaign but still coming to power in a cobbled-up administration that left him vulnerable and frustrated. At that stage, joining with the Progressive Democrats -- who had returned with 14 seats -- was unthinkable. But two years later, the Progressive Democrats were crucial to him.

O'Malley's judgment at this time was that the Progressive Democrats would enter a coalition as a watchdog party. He had to persuade other members, only a couple of whom -- among them Mary Harney -- had first-hand experience of serving under Haughey.

The lesson was a simple one: partnership in coalition contained and embraced argument, difference, debate, disagreement and eventually resolution. It was anathema to Haughey. It was meat and drink to O'Malley.

For security reasons, he insisted on two full Cabinet positions. It worked. Haughey was confronted by a power nexus that held him in check. In due course it led to his political disgrace and his departure, with further embarrassments to follow.

The benign face of Bertie Ahern, and the misplaced trust placed in him by O'Malley's successors within the Progressive Democrats, diminished the party's hold on power -- though the need for it was sufficient to keep them as appropriate partners for Fianna Fail after the Fianna Fail-Labour coalition came apart under Albert Reynolds.

What eventually did for the Progressive Democrats was its abandonment of the watchdog principle altogether.

It did this over the Sheedy affair; but much more seriously, it did it under Michael McDowell in September 2006 when the long agony of Bertie's departure from power began with his deceptions over money when he declared, in a long, emotional and wide-ranging statement: "I have broken no law. I've broken no ethical code. I've broken no tax law."

IT was not true. He had broken the law and his breach of it was more serious than the categories he referred to concerning tax law, ethics and the legislation covering income tax, capital gains tax and gift tax. He had transgressed the stipulations made by Judge Brian McCracken over Haughey; and if the Progressive Democrats had been led at the time by Desmond O'Malley, they would have demanded, and got, his replacement.

Morally, of course, they were in no real position to do this. They had already sold out many of the stricter conditions for sharing power with Fianna Fail; helping to preside over a sloppy approach to health, finance and the whole overblown construction industry bubble. Even so, if they had taken the hard course they would be in power now and well represented by TDs.

The need for what they did, during that historic 23-year enjoyment of a distinguished set of political achievements, remains part of the political scene and is reason enough for us to look around for a replacement.

Whether Libertas will develop into that replacement party is a moot point at present. Declan Ganley is clearly a greatly feared figure. He has energised the antagonism of European parliamentarians as well as politicians in Ireland, and has done so on the basis of a political performance over the Lisbon referendum that made complete fools of the campaigners coming from the main political parties.

But if there is to be such a party, the O'Malley principles for it remain as they were in 1985 when he enunciated them in caustic and confrontational circumstances -- out of which a significant party, making a significant contribution, was originally born.