Parlon resignation - Departure raises many questions

WHAT little remains of the dwindling Progressive Democrats has been dealt a huge body blow with the surprise decision of former junior minister and party president Tom Parlon to quit politics.

Though he had received a “right kick in the backside”, as he put it himself, when he lost his Dáil seat in the general election, nobody could have anticipated that the man widely expected to become PD leader and a senator would simply walk away from the waning party to take a top job in the private sector.

From an ethical standpoint, people are looking askance at his decision to head the powerful Construction Industry Federation. The Labour Party has sharply criticised the move, raising questions about a “serious potential conflict of interest”.

In a pointed statement after the news broke yesterday, Labour emphasised that until recently Mr Parlon had exercised ministerial control over the Office of Public Works, which administers multi-billion-euro public contracts.

Further highlighting the potential for conflict, it noted that had he been a senior civil servant, he would be barred from making such a move until 12 months had elapsed after leaving the job, unless special clearance was given.

There is no denying that as former minister of state at the Department of Public Works, Mr Parlon is in possession of what in stock market terminology would be described as “insider” information about long-term Government planning on roads and other big projects. Wearing his CIF hat, he will be representing an industry bidding for those contracts.

In pragmatic terms, there may be nothing wrong with that scenario. Arguably, however, a decent time lag should have been allowed for before taking the leap from politics to industry.

Battered and bruised after their disastrous general election performance, the PDs are reeling at the shock of the sudden exit of such a leading player. It is no exaggeration to describe the Parlon rise in politics as meteoric.

As former leader of the Irish Farmers’ Association, the country’s biggest farming organisation, he swept into Dáil Éireann on a tide of support in Laois-Offaly at his first attempt in 2002. Appointed junior minister, he rapidly established a reputation as an abrasive performer in the cut and thrust of politics. This harsh image may have contributed to the party’s election debacle.

To say the PDs are floundering would be an understatement. With a mere two seats in the Dáil, the party is at the lowest ebb since its formation 22 years ago when, after breaking from Fianna Fáil under disgraced Taoiseach Charles J Haughey, it ascended the high moral ground. As the Thatcherite party of Irish politics, it has punched above its weight in two coalition governments.

Like a cat with nine lives, it has survived against the odds. While forecasts of its demise have proved premature, its predicament has never been more perilous.

With two TDs, plus 30 councillors at city, county and town level, the framework of an organisation still exists. But Mr Parlon’s departure has landed Health Minister Mary Harney with a huge dilemma.

Following the loss of defeated minister Michael McDowell, she has remained on as party leader until the autumn in the hope Mr Parlon would take on the leadership. However, the fact that he doubts if he has the energy to take on the challenge of re-invigorating the party illustrates the enormity of that task.

The big question confronting the PDs is whether they have a viable future in politics? Perhaps, but the signs become more ominous by the day.

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