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Questions and Answers and the Progressive Democrats

Originally posted on Facebook
Watching the last episode of Questions and Answers on Monday, from a personal political point of view, I couldn’t help smiling at the fact that of the fifteen guests, two Progressive Democrats, Mary Harney and Liz O’Donnell, as many as from any of the larger parties. Of course, missing from a collection of party members who have made the panel livelier over the years was Michael McDowell. We had one of his best contributions in the clips, where by simply saying “Fair enough. Then we all understand each other”, he soundly put Mitchell McLaughlin in his place when he refused to describe the murder of Jean McConville as a crime.

John Bowman noted to Mary Harney that the life of the program coincided with that of the Progressive Democrats, and in ways, the reasons for the demise of one and the other might have a little in common. Both began in the 1980s, when Charles J. Haughey was leader of Fianna Fáil, and the country at times seemed to be in the midst of a culture war. Fianna Fáil opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, contraception and divorce, and the Fine Gael/Labour government was struggling with the economy. The biggest and most lasting change during the period of the programme was that a settlement came all too slowly in Northern Ireland, highlighted in the clips shown on Monday of the changing tone of questions on the subject. A change I noticed in my own attitudes was that at a certain point after the IRA had decommissioned their weapons, I realized that it no longer made sense to refer to either them or Sinn Féin only as the Provisional Movement, which I had called them till then.

The early years of this period were a much more tribal and partisan period than we have today. Take the clip of Brian Lenihan at the time of the 1990 presidential election, and how important it was for Fine Gael members to take him down on this point, the sound of the talk of the importance of loyalty to certain Fianna Fáil leaders, and how particularly grating it was to many that it was loyalty to Haughey on that occasion. As was noted, it wasn’t really that incident alone that brought Lenihan down, but more clearly when Pádraig Flynn made disparaging comments on a radio discussion program about Mary Robinson’s commitment to her family. On that occasion, the panellist to call him up on that was Michael McDowell.

The tribalism of the period suited the PDs, not because the party particularly based on such principles, though a vote for the party in 1987 was clearly a vote against Haughey, but that within the centre, it was the non-tribal option. For many, the party served as a conduit for those who were unhappy with Fine Gael, but unwilling to vote for Fianna Fáil. This was seen as late as 2002, as there was enough of a swing to Progressive Democrats in the last week from Fine Gael voters to prevent a FF majority and for the PDs to double seat numbers. By 2007, most of these votes either went back to Fine Gael or had moved over to Fianna Fáil, the party now more palatable, having long abandoned its 1980s reactionary positions. Then in the recent locals, Fianna Fáil lost these voters and many more to Fine Gael. This level of fluidity is quite a change from the 1980s.

Back to Questions and Answers, this mellowing of Irish politics led to many describing it as stale or repetitive. There were some great moments still, such as the interchange between Pat Rabbitte and Dermot Ahern in the run-up to the last general election on the vote for Taoiseach, but often it seemed to be merely a case of each of the politicians on the panel merely trotting out the party line. Having said that I did still watch it most Monday nights. This is not to say that people no longer have strong political feelings, but now Fianna Fáil are unpopular because of perceived incompetence and bad management rather than a visceral dislike for their leader.

So after the Progressive Democrats had served as a catalyst for Fianna Fáil to modernize drop some of their more obnoxious policy stances, and where there was such a consensus that even Labour called for tax cuts during the boom, there seemed to be little reason to vote for them, and equally with such a consensus around what Fergus Finlay termed “the policy dot”, these may well have been the same causes for the decline in the liveliness of Questions and Answers.

Now that it’s over, I regret that I was never in the audience. It wasn’t quite convenient living in Bray to get back at the time it finished, but I did have a year when I was living in College when I could easily have done so. I never really imagined that it would end so soon.

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