Monday, May 07, 2007

Irish General Election 2007: Progressive Democrats on Road to Irrelevance?

Michael McDowell in 2002 - The big stunt in this year's General Election, may well doom the Progressive Democrats as a credible political force.

On Monday Green Party Deputy Leader John Gormley accused Michael McDowell, leader of the Progressive Democrats of being a liar because of the latter's claims that the Green Party wished to raise the corporation tax rate from its current level of 12.5%

Apart from some children and the naive, the notion of "honest politics" is an oxymoron to the rest of the population.

For most of last week, the position of Michael McDowell on Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's method of buying a house as Minister for Finance and later Taoiseach, involving cash sums amounting to £177,000 - - savings of £50,000 that were kept in a safe plus the proceeds of whip-around from "friends" and big sums for refurbishment from the landlord of the 4-year old house - - Michael McDowell said he would not turn the election campaign into a mini tribunal on the Taoiseach's finances when the Mahon inquiry had decided that it would be unfair to conduct hearings ahead of the 24th of May (General Election day).

McDowell said he was satisfied that the Irish people had been governed well in the last five years and the real question was would that continue after an election that was not about what happened in Manchester in the 90s.

So McDowell had dismissed the central issue of Ahern's house purchase but by Friday evening journalists were being briefed that the PDs were going to collapse the Government.

McDowell had received information from a Sunday Independent journalist on a suspected lodgement of $45,000. It wasn't a smoking gun but another detail in the convoluted financial affairs of the Taoiseach.

The man who had climbed a pole in South Dublin in 2002 to warn of the risk of one-party Government was reacting to the doorstep backlash that the PDs' had been Fianna Fáil's compliant poodle.

He needed a stunt to give his party an aura of relevance but has ended up imperilling its own very existence as a credible political force.

McDowell has been asked why he had not spoken to Ahern and now has to await to give judgement on the latter's finances while having surrendered the opportunity of garnering Fianna Fáil's key transferable votes.

Jimmy Carter had shown in the US as President, that the brightest boy in the class is not necessarily material for political leadership.

Shameless political opportunism with scant evidence of principle, has simply rebounded on McDowell.

McDowell had promised an Ethics Bill following the first disclosures about Ahern's finances in October 2006. The Bill never became law, as was expected when it was published and it provided for a big jump in the value of gifts that politicians could receive without declaring.

Former PD leader Mary Harney

The sad reality is that the PDs long ago junked radical policies and their impact in Government has been very limited.

How different would a one-party FF administration have been?

In the past decade, there has been no significant reform and as recently as last January, the OECD was asked to put forward proposals on public sector reform.

Mary Harney is being presented as the Joan of Arc who will save the health service but there are no plans to change the 1920's governance system which is one where there is limited accountability and the buck stops nowhere.

During the ten years of the planning corruption tribunal, what proposals have the PDs made to change the system that continues to underpin corruption?

The economy is even more dependent on US investment than it was in 1997.

Promoting some tax reductions (the overall tax burden is almost unchanged since 1995) is easy but there is nothing else.

Since McDowell took over, the party has even become more a branch of FF and simply in all the significant areas of failure over the past ten years, has nothing new to offer.

Today, the Progressive Democrats' party is a far cry from its early years even though its claim to have been responsible for the emergence of the Celtic Tiger period, is certainly hyperbole.

It still talks the talk of radicalism but the results tell the true story.

McDowell and his party, the Progressive Democrats, make the bold claim that it's "credited with major responsibility for Ireland's economic boom by pioneering tax reform, deregulation and competition to end mass unemployment and emigration." Michael McDowell, PD Leader and Minister for Justice has in the past stated that the party has a choice of being 'radical or redundant' and has said: "We saw the possibility of a different way for Ireland – where radical tax reform, pro-enterprise policies, competition and deregulation, coupled with social partnership, could lead the country away from disaster to become a model of growth and employment generation.'"

Read about the emergence of the Celtic Tiger here - a process that had its genesis as far back as 1956!

In 1985, Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey created the Progressive Democrats by expelling his chief rival in the party Desmond O'Malley.

O'Malley had challenged Haughey for the leadership of Fianna Fáil on two occasions. He didn't put forward a separate policy platform providing for a radical change in economic policy or any proposals to end the endemic corruption in both planning and other areas of Irish life. Prior to the creation of the Progressive Democrats, Michael McDowell, was building a career in law and like many Fine Gael lawyers before him, his ambition was to become a member of Dáil Éireann, while maintaining a lucrative law practice.

Before Haughey prompted the creation of the Progressive Democrats, it was the current EU Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy who as a Fianna Fáil T.D., led the charge of economic mismanagement against Haughey.

When O'Malley was expelled by Fianna Fáil, he had two choices in remaining in politics: run as an independent or establish a new party.

When O'Malley had first challenged Haughey in the early 1980's, both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her policies were deeply unpopular in her own country. O'Malley wouldn't have seen much political mileage in promoting such policies in Ireland. However, by 1985, the tide had turned for Mrs. Thatcher. Her political soulmate Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his second term and in the Soviet Union, the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power. With Ireland in the economic doldrums, there was a growing section of the Irish electorate who saw remedies for the then Irish economic malaise, in the experiments that were underway overseas.

So McDowell's claim that he and his party invented the Celtic Tiger, is nonsense. He and his colleagues jumped on a bandwagon and soon abandoning its goal of "breaking the mould of Irish politics," the Progressive Democrats became a mini-catch all party.

Four years after its creation, the Progressive Democrats entered into a Government with Charles Haughey and there wasn't a word raised from the new "radical" party about the systemic corruption in Irish society.

In 2002, the former President of the Irish Farmers Association Tom Parlon, was recruited by the party in return for a position as a junior minister. It was another nail in its coffin as a party that promoted radical reform. It took ten years in office, to pass a Pharmacy Bill, a complete overhaul of regulation of pharmacy for the first time in 130 years. The PDs had two pharmacists in its parliamentary party who knew what was required to end the anti-competitive closed shop.

Like so much else, it didn't matter.

Tom Parlon State Socialism and the Property Bonanza for Farmers