Repost: I’m delighted to see that Des O’Malley, one of my great political heroes, launched his autobiography “Conduct Unbecoming” yesterday. In honour, I thought I’d repost this from 2012:
I was watching Michael McDowell recently on The Saturday Night Show and almost saw him roll his eyes when asked about the Progressive Democrat legacy in government. I don’t blame him, because the party’s time in government, now seen as an historical event as opposed to being part of a current party’s baggage, allows certain myths to gather about the party, which I thought I’d write about.
1. The PDs espoused the “glorification of greed”. Joe Higgins made this point when the party was wound up, and sneered that the party was reduced to a mere two seats. Aside from noting that the Socialist Party has never ever won more than two seats (note: now 3) in its history, the greed argument is very intellectually lazy. The PDs cut taxes for the rich. They also took huge tranches of low paid workers (wrongly, as it now turns out) entirely out of the tax net. They cut Capital Gains Tax, which boosted economic activity and yes, did make some people a lot of money, But also provided social service revenue. But given that Joe has never advocated the reversal the majority of PD tax cuts, does that mean he too supported the glorification of greed?
2. The PDs espoused a rightwing Thatcherite agenda. When I was in the PDs, we used to fall around in stitches when someone on the left accused us of that. The stormiest meeting I ever attended in the party was a General Council meeting where proposed cuts to the Community Employment Schemes were discussed, and Mary Harney was left in no uncertain terms that CES had to be protected. Certainly, the party did introduce some free-market things into the healthcare sector, like the National Treatment Purchase Fund, which uses taxpayer funds to buy private or public care for public patients, and has treated over 217,000 patients since 2002. Funnily enough, Labour didn’t abolish it when they came to power. But Harney also kept (rightly) the Community Rating system in private health insurance, or as an American would call it: socialism. The party did propose letting the public sector shrink by 25,000 (an extra 0 in a typo boosted the proposal to 250,000 and became THE story of election 1997) but that was by natural shrinkage. As it happens, Labour in government has let more go.
3. The PDs were against public spending. Look at the size of the budget in 1997, and again in 2007 and tell me that was true. I wish it was, but the PDs were just as addicted to spending as any other party. Both benchmarking and decentralisation happened (shamefully) under the PDs. Embarrassing yes, right wing, definitely not.
4.The PDs were against social welfare. Again, the facts don’t speak for themselves. Welfare rates rose under FF and the PDs, and I don’t recall anyone in the party having a problem with it. In fact, the party was particularly proud of the increase in pensions and help for carers. You know, the stuff the Labour Party is currently cutting.
5. The PDs were the party of Big Business. Certainly, the party was openly pro-business, whereas FF and FG tended to hide their business contacts. But who brought in the Minimum Wage, and the Office of Corporate Enforcement, or the Environmental Protection Agency or got rid of Dublin’s smog? Labour, right? No wait, it was Eamon Gilmore and Democratic Left? No, actually, it was the PDs and Fianna Fail. The difference with the PDs was that they did not regard “business” as a dirty word.
6. The PDs were socially liberal. Again, this is a myth which people bought into despite the actual facts. The party abolished the death penalty in 1990, despite the fact that there were FF cabinet ministers (Michael Woods) opposed as recently as 1989. But aside from that, on liberal issues like divorce and contraception, the party did nothing. It attempted to reverse the X case ruling in a referendum, and despite making friendly noises about gay marriage, never actually did anything, leaving the Greens to do the heavy lifting and getting civil partnership through (something for which they deserve far more credit than they ever got). The PDs were not as much liberal as not anti-liberal.