PDs made a difference at the start but deserved all they got in the end

IT was one of the scariest nights of my life. It was February 18, 1987, and my livelihood was hanging by a thread.

I had worked for the Labour party in government for the previous four years and now the party was fighting for its life in an election in which it had been blamed for all the ills of our economy.

Terrible national debt, huge unemployment, a continuing conflagration in Northern Ireland (despite the success of the outgoing taoiseach in negotiating the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985), and considerable emigration.

Public expenditure were inevitable in the situation we were faced with and Labour was learning the lesson that you never get credit for the cuts you prevent — only blame for any that go ahead.

One of the rules of politics at the time was that a party had to have seven seats before it could employ any parliamentary staff.

There were only two or three of us in that category then, and for most of that night it looked as if the party would end up with six seats — including the loss of Dick Spring. If that were the result, any chance I had of future employment in politics would be out the window.

At the end of a very long couple of days, however, the party hung on to 12 seats and its leader famously managed to cling to his own seat by four votes. I was concentrating so heavily on the survival of my own party that it took me a few days to notice that there was a new political force in town. The PDs had arrived.

In fact, in that first election they overtook Labour to become the third largest party in the Dáil. It was a phenomenal achievement for their leader, Des O’Malley, and it introduced both a new style and a new ideology to Irish politics.

It was also, in some ways, the beginning of the end for the PDs. Their first election was their best and they were never to repeat that success again.

Winning 14 seats in 1987 was the high water mark of their electoral achievement. In most subsequent elections they lost seats. Mind you, in the process they also achieved a new irony in politics.

Every time they lost seats in an election (in other words, every time their mandate was reduced), fewer seats in the Dáil ended up meaning more seats in government. Now, in the ultimate irony of all, they hold one of the most vital seats in cabinet at a time when their mandate has entirely disappeared.

The real phenomenon in those early days was of course Des O’Malley. For years before that, O’Malley had had a reputation as a cantankerous Fianna Fáil minister. But at a time when questions were beginning to be asked about integrity and character within Fianna Fáil — questions which ultimately revolved around the behaviour of Charles Haughey — O’Malley was widely accepted as a beacon of integrity.

He copper-fastened and broadened that reputation with a stunning parliamentary speech in February 1985. The speech was made in the context of a debate about contraception.

Barry Desmond, the Labour minister for health, had made a modest proposal about condoms — its main purpose was to allow adults to buy them. It seems almost silly now when condoms are so widely and easily available, but the subject was somewhere close to taboo at the time.

The debate divided Dáil Éireann, with Fianna Fáil in particular describing it as dangerous, the slippery slope to abortion, and a recipe for degeneracy among young people.

But they weren’t alone. Oliver Flanagan of Fine Gael, for instance, said “this bill will hurry the people down the slippery slope of moral decline”.

When O’Malley took the floor, he made it clear he regarded the bill itself as a detail, but the debate as fundamentally important, because, as he said, “we will never see a 32-county republic on this island until first of all we have here a 26-county republic in the part we have jurisdiction over today, which is really a republic, practising real republican traditions. Otherwise, we can forget about the possibility of ever succeeding in persuading our fellow Irishmen in the north to join us”.

And he went on to say that “republican” is “perhaps the most abused word in Ireland today… It consists of turning a blind eye to violence, seeing no immorality, often, in the most awful violence, seeing immorality only in one area, the area with which this bill deals… I will conclude by quoting from a letter in The Irish Times… signed by Fr Dominic Johnson OSB, a monk of Glenstal Abbey where he says: ‘With respect to Mr O’Malley, he might reflect with profit on the life of St Thomas More who put his conscience before politics and lost his life for doing so.’

“The politics of this would be very easy,” O’Malley concluded. “The politics would be to be one of the lads, the safest way in Ireland. But I do not believe that the interests of this State, or our constitution and of this Republic, would be served by putting politics before conscience in regard to this. There is a choice of a kind that can only be answered by saying that I stand by the republic and accordingly I will not oppose this bill.” That speech cost O’Malley his place in Fianna Fáil — he was drummed out of the party soon afterwards — and ultimately led to the founding of the PDs. It was also, I think, the high point of his career. It transformed his image and turned him briefly into the great hope of Irish politics.

Politics always disappoints, though. Those who promise much never seem to deliver on the expectations they generate. Within two years of the founding of the PDs, Des O’Malley was in government with Charles Haughey and from that moment on things went downhill.

FOR example, when the Goodman empire collapsed, Des O’Malley might have been the man who forensically examined what had happened, why it had happened, and what were the unhealthy relationships behind it. Instead he was the minister who had little choice but to bail it out and spent the next several years in the highly uncomfortable position of defending government policies he really didn’t believe in.

In the meantime (and this was crucial) the party never got the opportunity to put down solid roots — largely because there was never a local election when their star was in the ascendancy.

Had they ever at any time had more than a handful of councillors, they would have had a solid base on which to build. As it was, they were always entirely dependent on personality.

As we all know, Des O’Malley was succeeded by Mary Harney and ultimately by Michael McDowell who turned out to be the final nail in their coffin. His disastrous mix of intellectual brilliance, coupled with a complete lack of political judgment, led them into one catastrophic situation after another.

And now they are gone. The PDs were founded on integrity and their coming was good for politics. Ultimately, though, their ideology was pernicious. It won’t be missed.

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