Sam Smyth and the PDs
Over the past two Mondays, Sam Smyth presented a two-hour program on the Progressive Democrats. It was fine to watch and reminisce, but it was lacking in crucial areas. The narrative of the program was too much driven by the choice quotes from some of those interviewed. These were certainly interesting to hear, Charlie McCreevy never failed to amuse and we saw how little love there was lost between Michael McDowell and Liz O’Donnell, from his account of her dislike for constituency meetings to her description of his proposed party constitution as Mugabesque. But there was a little more to the party than that.
Timing was the biggest problem. The first hour covered the years 1985 to 2002, the second hour the years 2002 to 2008. Even given the time for the revelations of Operation Teatime, the discussions on a merger between Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats that took place in 2004, there wasn’t a good reason when assessing the party as a whole to give such disproportionate time to the period when Michael McDowell when at his strongest point within the party. Sam Smyth is, of course, quite good friends with both McDowell brothers, Moore and Michael. There were times when it seemed that not a week went without either one or the other as a guest on the Sunday Supplement. One of the things that drew me to the party was how often I found myself in agreement with McDowell so often, and his naming of Adams, McGuinness and Ferris as members of the Provisional Army Council on the program.
But the party was much more than that, and even when I joined I was attracted to the party’s history and the spirit of 1985. Maybe there should have been a third hour. The scene in the 1980s should have been set. The commentary merely stated that Des O’Malley was expelled for disagreements with Charles Haughey. Would it have hurt to have mentioned the nature of these disagreements, to have spent a few minutes on the heaves against Haughey during the 1980s? To have given footage of the New Ireland Forum report in 1984, which Des O’Malley supported along with Fine Gael, Labour and the SDLP? And what sort of documentary on the PDs could neglect O’Malley standing by the republic in 1985, when he spoke out in the Dáil against the sectarianism in Fianna Fáil and their opposition to the government’s bill on contraception, which led him to be expelled from Fianna Fáil for “conduct unbecoming”. More could have been made on the state of Irish politics at the time, with high rates of taxation and public spending, and why it was that Michael McDowell saw fit to write to Des on the night he was expelled to discuss forming a part.
Then on the party’s first term in government, the program focused on questions like why Mary Harney didn’t get a seat at the cabinet rather than what she was noted for at the time, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the elimination of Dublin’s smog as Junior Minister for the Environment.
The program did not capture the party’s power and influence in that first period of government, that caused so much resentment in Fianna Fáil. During the 1990 presidential election, after Brian Lenihan, on “mature recollection”, changed his story of his phone calls to the Áras in 1982, the Progressive Democrats insisted that he be dismissed as Tánaiste. Michael McDowell was soon after to attack Pádraig Flynn on RTÉ Radio when he attempted to criticize Mary Robinson’s conduct during the campaign “as a wife and as a mother”, remarks which ultimately swung the campaign in Robinson’s favour. The party managed to veto Jim McDaid’s appointment as Minister for Defence in 1991, and then brought down Haughey in 1992 when Sean Doherty revealed him to be responsible for tapping the phones of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold. The chronology as shown was also a little off; Reynolds’ “temporary little arrangement” remark dates from 1989, not 1992, as it seemed from how it was portrayed.
I don’t mean here to write a full account of the role the Progressive Democrats played in Irish politics, just to highlight a few points where this program was lacking, particularly in the earlier years. A shame, because there is a story there, which will probably not be documented again for a while after this attempt. There could also have been a better analysis of the reasons for its ultimate demise and fall in popularity, even as its policy outlook was adopted as the mainstream. And a nice coda would have been a mention of the success of former Progressive Democrats at the 2009 local elections. The party deserves an account played for more than just the laughs and the sensationalism of some of the interview clips.
Edit: Line on “mature recollection” corrected.