The conference from the Reform Alliance later this month should be interesting to watch. I might even call in to it. While Lucinda Creighton did insist on Prime Time yesterday that it isn’t a political party, it certainly seems to be heading that way, with a date of September mentioned. If Stephen Donnelly joins them, my Wicklow homeland would become a stronghold for them. I’ve been asked more than once by friends and family if I’d consider joining them. There’s really barely a hope of that.
It’s not just that I’m enjoying my current activity in Fine Gael. If a party emerged that was closer to my ideals, and had reasonable prospects of being viable, I’d give them a fair hearing. This new group doesn’t seem likely to be either. When I spoke in favour of dissolution at the last conference of the Progressive Democrats, among other things, I said that if we were to continue, we could inhibit the development of our ideas in another political force. The Reform Alliance is not what I had in mind.
Let’s jump back to the 1980s, to the events that led to the formation of the PDs. Des O’Malley first lost the Fianna Fáil whip in 1984 because he was willing to consider political solutions in the New Ireland Forum Report other than a united Ireland (all of which gave much more power to the Irish government than the later agreements). He was then expelled from Fianna Fáil in February 1985 after he stood by the republic in the debate on the Family Planning Bill, arguing against that party’s tactical opposition to modest liberalisation of contraception laws. While an Independent TD, O’Malley led the charge against Minister for Transport Jim Mitchell’s ridiculous notion that it should be illegal to sell a place ticket lower than Aer Lingus, paving the way for cheap flights and Ryanair. Mary Harney lost the Fianna Fáil whip in November 1985 after she voted in favour of the Anglo–Irish Agreement. She and O’Malley were joined in December 1985 at the launch of the new party by Michael McDowell, a former chair of Dublin South-East Fine Gael, who was unsatisfied with the Fine Gael/Labour management of the economy. As well as realism on the national question, moderate personal liberalism and an economic focus on lower taxation rather than government control, a large impetus for the strength of the party was opposition to the politics of Charlie Haughey.
At the last presidential election, held 30 October 1997, there was also a ballot to amend the constitution, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution Bill. This was to safeguard the tradition of cabinet confidentiality with explicit exceptions which sought to correct a difficulty which Justice Liam Hamilton found during the Beef Tribunal, when he was unable to question Ray Burke on his recollections of a cabinet meeting. With three tribunals of inquiry established in 1997 alone, this was of increasing importance.
It involved the insertion of a new Article 28.4.3°: –
The confidentiality of discussions at meetings of the Government shall be respected in all circumstances save only where the High Court determines that disclosure should be made in respect of a particular matter –
- in the interests of the administration of justice by a Court, or
- by virtue of an overriding public interest, pursuant to an application in that behalf by a tribunal appointed by the Government or a Minister of the Government on the authority of the Houses of the Oireachtas to inquire into a matter stated by them to be of public importance.
The amendment was supported by the five leading parties; the wording had originally been drafted during the lifetime of the Fine Gael–Labour–Democratic Left coalition, and the coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, which had been in government since June, carried the amendment bill forward, proposing it in September.
It was opposed within the Dáil by the Green Party, whose John Gormley described the attempt to railroad the amendment as “tantamount to blackmail” (The Irish Times, 28 Oct. 1997).
More notably and contentious politically, it was also opposed by senior figures within the Progressive Democrats. Party founder and former leader, Des O’Malley, then a backbench government TD, criticised the bill in the Dáil as being too restrictive. He spoke (Vol. 480, No. 4, Col. 680) of his own experiences of a Minister, and the effect the amendment would have on the ability of former ministers to write memoirs,
I was a Minister for 13 years and I know it is usual to speak with the Secretary. Will this now be illegal? Frequently it is necessary to speak with a number of civil servants about matters discussed at Cabinet. This is perfectly proper but the current proposal will make it illegal.
I am in the unusual position of having resigned, for good reason, on two occasions from Government. I know the procedure and the trauma occasioned by this. At present there is an absolute right for a Minister to explain to the House why he resigned from Cabinet. However, what is now proposed will preclude him from doing so. This is ridiculous.
It is a tradition in Britain and less so here that former Ministers write their memoirs. Two were written here in recent years by former Deputies Garret FitzGerald and Gemma Hussey. Both quote extensively from what was said and done at Cabinet meetings. In Britain, almost every former Minister writes his or her memoirs, quoting extensively from Cabinet discussions. Bona fide students of history need to know what discussions take place in Cabinet but now they will not be able to find out.
He criticized the rush of the bill, and called for it to be redrafted and delayed until the vote on the Amsterdam Treaty (which ultimately took place in May 1998).
Also outspoken was former Progressive Democrat TD (and future party leader), Michael McDowell. He publicly clashed with Mary Harney, then leader, after he wrote in an article for the Irish Independent that the proposal was “the predictable consequence of running the country out of the hip pocket and handbag of coalition leaders, without consultation or reflection”. He had also around this time criticized Mary Harney for rowing in behind Fianna Fáil and giving formal party support to Mary McAleese as a presidential candidate. He announced on Questions and Answers that he intended to allow his party membership to last until March. Significantly however, he would “not unequivocally rule out any future role in politics” (The Irish Times, 25 Oct. 1997).
The Irish Times editorial line was opposed to the referendum, with a heading “Vote No” to the editorial on the day of the vote and columnists Dr Garret FitzGerald, former Taoiseach, and Vincent Browne also wrote against it. Garret FitzGerald criticized the way that “the best that two successive government have been able to come up with has been a constitutional amendment for just two very specific and limited exceptions, outside of which the dangerous rigidity of Supreme Court’s ruling will continue to operate in a thoroughly perverse way”. He echoed O’Malley’s concerns of the right of resigning ministers to give an explanation, a right of a minister to discuss cabinet with civil servants, and the effect it would have on historians (18 Oct. 1997). Vincent Browne proposed an alternative constitutional amendment, “The confidentiality of government discussions shall not be a matter of Constitutional right but shall be regulated by law” (29 Oct. 1997), and expressed confidence that a further appeal to the Supreme Court would overturn their ruling of 1992.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties opposed the amendment on similar grounds to those of Des O’Malley and Garret FitzGerald mentioned above (The Irish Times, 27 Oct. 1997).
It would be a stretch to draw any direct parallels between the referendum on cabinet confidentiality and tomorrow’s referendum on Oireachtas inquiries, it is interesting at least to find Michael McDowell, the Green Party, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and The Irish Times, (and Vincent Browne as a columnist), again on the same side calling for a No vote. (And it was also Brendan Howlin who spoke for the Labour Party in the Dáil supporting the Amendment).
Ultimately, it passed by 52% to 48%, with 5% of votes spoiled. I would imagine that tomorrow’s vote on Oireachtas inquiries will be similarly tight, and again with a high proportion of votes spoiled.
When five Labour ministers left government in January 1987, an election was called and five sitting Fine Gael ministers double-jobbed until the new government came into office after the election.
When six Labour ministers left government in November 1994, Fianna Fáil continued in a caretaker role till late December. Sitting Fianna Fáil ministers took their place until the Rainbow government came into office.
We could be about six weeks till an election (we’ll probably be that bit longer), we’re in a similar situation. It would be farcical to have new people in cabinet. Even if they wouldn’t get ministerial pensions, they would have privilege without responsibility for that time. Nothing would surprise us, and Fianna Fáil are now so long gone that they don’t care about such precedent. But there really is no need to replace Mary Harney, Tony Killeen, Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern. Just as Cowen is taking on Foreign Affairs, others should share their jobs from tomorrow. They’ll be gone soon anyway.
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.
Over the weekend, I attended the Fine Gael National Conference in Killarney, where I had a great time. It was my first Conference with the party, and great to get to know people. I was also genuinely impressed with the party. Having been to party conferences before, and followed politics in general long enough, I know that all too often these such occasions are simply about rallying the troops and fomenting the common identity between members, in the case of those in opposition, talking in vague terms about how things could change for the better, but without substance.
It was during the seminar on the New Politics that it became clear that the party really is serious about reforming the political system. This started with Enda Kenny’s announcement last year that he planned to put a referendum to the people on the abolition of Seanad Éireann. Last week, The Irish Times published draft details of proposals of the parliamentary party on Constitutional reforms, with details such as list seats, a reform of the term of the president, and greater powers for certain Dáil committees. What became clear as Phil Hogan made his presentation to the Conference was that the real proposal was not these proposals as such, but the idea that something needs to be done. It looks likely that this will be organized by way of a citizens’ assembly, with time to engage with whatever proposals, to react to them and propose any relevant changes before they are put to the people. This received a very positive response from Prof. David Farrell of the UCD Department of Politics, and it is something that many commentators have called for. This is the beginning of a discussion that people really do want.
There were other areas too. There’s FairCare, a radical overhaul of the medical sector. While Mary Harney’s reforms did help in reducing, by removing private beds from public hospitals and through the National Treatment Purchase Fund, they did not change the fundamental nature of the provision of health care. Fine Gael’s proposals would manage to eliminate on the broad scale the division between public and private patients while maintaining a competitive private health insurance system.
There are the New Era proposals for job creation, with a plan to provide for 105,000 new jobs in certain key areas such as broadband and energy. To be honest, this is one area that it is very difficult to anticipate what could be done this far out, as the macroeconomic demands of the country after the election will determine a lot. But of more immediate relevance were the policies developed by Leo Varadkar to tackle unemployment at the lowest margins, to make it more attractive to keep employees working part-time than to dismiss them. There are some perverse incentives at this level, and we need to make a clear commitment that welfare policies should be such that no one should ever find themselves in a position where they would have less money if they started work.
What I encouraged me overall was a feeling of hope, not just from a partisan level that we will lead the next government with a strong mandate. On the principle of throwing the rascals out, at the next election more than any previously, we could presume to run on that basis. It would be all to easy to have spent time asserting a simple valence point, that we could do a better job than Fianna Fáil.
But this hope was a feeling of optimism about the country, what we could do in government. It was not about the vague principle of a need for change or a new sort of politics, but something that was far more clearly outlined than we might expect from an opposition party before an election itself. While Fianna Fáil are now doing what they can to salvage the economy and move the books to a sounder state, it will take a party with a fresh approach and focus to bring forward real change.
I had to smile to see a few familiar faces, that I was not the only former Progressive Democrat in Killarney. My old party emerged during the 1980s, as an optimistic force with a radical approach to all aspects of politics, including major Constitutional reform. Of course, it never had the opportunity to play a role as the leading party in government. In Fine Gael, facing the next election in a time with a need for renewal, I now feel, much more than I did before the weekend, that we have a force for meaningful change.
Recently, I read Pat Leahy’s Showtime, on Fianna Fáil under Bertie Ahern, and Kevin Rafter’s Fine Gael: Party at the Crossroads, on the party under Enda Kenny.
Reading the accounts of political events over the last decade and a half, I was reminded of my own reaction to these at the time. As I became interested in politics around the time of the revelations about Charles Haughey and Ray Burke, I was suspicious of them as a party. Supporting the re-election of the Rainbow government, being sure the minority Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats government couldn’t last much beyond 1997; sure it was near collapse around the Sheedy incident.
Reading Rafter’s book specifically, I remembered that as a John Bruton supporter, I was wary of the internal opposition to him in 2001 and wasn’t enthusiastic about Michael Noonan; I supported Enda Kenny as the leadership candidate that year, as he was close to Bruton, and felt vindicated, but incredibly disappointed, when Fine Gael fell from 54 seats to 31 in 2002. I was known in school as a Fine Gael supporter, and received a lot of abuse the day back the weekend after that election. I supported Richard Bruton for the leadership, but was enthusiastic about Enda Kenny. I was pleasantly surprised at the party’s first great success under his leadership, with 5 seats of 13 at the 2004 European elections.
But from around the same time, I was becoming more attracted to the Progressive Democrats. I was impressed with Michael McDowell at the 2002 election. While the team I was then supporting was faring relatively poorly, I found another to be somewhat enthusiastic about. In the RDS at the count in 2002, I told those I talked to that I was a Fine Gael supporter and sympathised with those who were tallying for the party, but for want for something to be happy with, I wondered over to look at the tallies from Dublin South-East where the Attorney-General had topped the poll. In the canteen, I shook his hand to congratulate him on the result. I appreciated his stances as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform over the coming years, liking his proposal on café bars and his strong stance against the Provos (though I felt the citizenship referendum was unnecessary). I also respected the work Mary Harney had done as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
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.