Matthew Taylor has fond memories of the now defunct Progressive Democratic, which rocked the Irish political scene in the 1980s.
WB Yeats wrote, of 1916, the famous lines “All changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born”. These are lines that, if one were feeling flippant, could be used to describe the emergence of the Progressive Democrats in December of 1985.
In the nearly 70 years of independence, Ireland’s economic policies (if they could be called that) were largely based on the protection of domestic industry and agriculture through tariffs. This was followed by a poorly managed (though often unduly lauded) period of free-trade and industrialisation led by Sean Lemass. A series of political crises, foreign and domestic, stifled all hope of development throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The populist Fianna Fáil and newly liberal Fine Gael swelled the state’s deficits with vast increases in spending, which both parties sought to decrease by bringing income tax up to 60%. One of the few men to see the madness in this was Fianna Fáil’s Desmond O’Malley who, after expulsion from his party on grounds of being pro-contraception and pro-New Ireland Forum, decided to found a party which would be based on true liberalism.
It was a revolution in Irish politics, a new and dangerous idea that a political party should try to solve the country’s problems. Their message was simple: 104% GDP/National Debt ratio is unsustainable, the government has no place in your bedroom, and taxes are bad for business. Not only was this simple, it was popular, and the PDs won 14 seats in the 1987 election. Their ideology is, in my opinion, the defining characteristic of Irish political affairs in the late ’80s up until their dissolution in 2007. Every position the Progressive Democrats took, the country and the government soon followed. After their founding in 1985, a law was passed allowing condoms to be sold without prescription. Following the 1987 election, Fianna Fáil implemented the PD strategy of deficit reduction. After entering government in 1989 they lowered the corporation tax rate, one of the fundamental factors to which the phenomenal growth of the Celtic Tiger era can be attributed. Their breaking of the state monopoly on travel allowed cheap airlines to flourish, and they were, together with the Labour party, the first party to support civil unions. All of these positions were introduced by the PDs and all of them have led to a great increase in the quality of life of all Irish people.
What you will notice, surveying Ireland’s current political situation, is that three out of four of Ireland’s major political parties drifted towards the Progressive Democrats. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour have all become business friendly, low tax and pro-secularisation. When they are not busy exploding the deficit with bailouts for their bank managers, they recognise the need to shrink public debts. While we don’t have a Progressive Democrat party anymore, we have three much larger variations on a theme. This party was able, through sound reasoning (marred by poor leadership and bad politics) to shape the political mindset of this country, and influence the governments, whether in cabinet or from the opposition benches, to take its manifesto on board. While they undoubtedly deserve blame for selling out some of their original platform as they were dwarfed and consumed by their evil half-brother, they fundamentally changed the dialogue.
There has been speculation, in previous months and years, that PD fellow travellers such as Shane Ross, David McWilliams and possibly Michael McDowell himself are planning a new “Radical” party. Any and all chatter which has emerged about this venture points to it being very much “PD Mark II”, based on the same economic and social policies. You can be sure that, given the constipation of the current Dáil, any such party could hope for another 14 seat sweep. And, correctly managed, there could well be a new political force to be reckoned with in this country in the years to come. Whatever comes of this, we all live in a Progressive Democrat world now.