Just watched Sam Smth’s “The PDs: Boom to Bust.” Brought back a lot of memories, but what really struck me was the fact that what others deemed Thatcherite when referring to PD policies back then is now the norm, particularly on tax and competition. FF, FG and Labour’s policies today are far closer to the hated PD policies of 1985 then they are to their own policies of the time.
The other interesting thing was the failure of the PDs to actually identify and solidify a loyal PD vote. In my own mind, I think this is partially due to our electoral system which pretty much demands candidates try and minimise the differences between them and other candidates, and that in turn means that after a while voters begin to ask what is the point in actually voting for the likes of the PDs or Greens, especially when so many of the candidates (particularly true of the PDs in later years) are not really “PDs” in the sense of actually subscribing to a unique PD identity. It also raises a question about the psyche of the Irish voter. Small parties like Labour (Yes, historically, Labour have been a small party) the PDs and the Greens have attracted voters who tend to be quite purist, and so drop the party faster when it compromises, which it has to, being as we live in a coalition system. This is a challenge the Greens are going to have to face very soon.
The documentary did make one interesting point about Michael McDowell. His party support in Dublin South East was incredibly loyal to him because Michael was incredibly loyal to them. At every party meeting, Michael would make sure that every member got their say with him, and it’s an image that jars with the incorrect public image of him. I have to say that I find the images of Michael losing his seat the most distressing, even though by then I had quit the party because I disagreed with him. The reality of Michael McDowell is that he was what Irish people always said they wanted their politicians to be: Straight about where he stood on issues, personally honest, and one of the few people in Irish politics who actually took a pay cut to be involved in politics. I disagreed with his “left baiting” and his growing euroscepticism, but I never doubted that he was in politics out of a belief that he could make the country better for the people who live in it. You just can’t say that about every politician.
One other point: A lot of attention was given to Mary Harney’s remarks about social welfare and single mothers during the 1997 general election, and how they “damaged” the party during the campaign. My memory, during canvassing in both middle class and working class areas, was that the proposal had a neutral effect, being welcomed and attacked in equal measure. It was the public sector cuts that really did in the party, because it mobilised anti-PD transfers without mobilising pro-public sector reform votes in favour of the party.
By 2007, was there any room left for the PDs? The voters obviously didn’t think so, and it has to be said that the PDs struggled to give them a reason why they should stay with the party. Although the party hated the “watchog” label, the fact was, it was an identity that PD friendly voters could identify with, and the fact that the party, for various reasons, failed to “take out” or even try to remove Bertie after his finances became public seriously hurt the party. In policy terms, the party that had been a trailblazer on church and state issues and tax reform and competition (and the environment, something people forget. Mary Harney got rid of the smog in Dublin and set up the EPA) had run out of new ideas, or rather, had become too comfortable with its existing ideas. Inside the party, the only thing that was ever talked about with vigour was cutting taxes, which was all well and good except that at this stage, even the Labour Party supported tax cuts.
Finally, did the PDs drop the ball on public spending? There’s an argument for this, but we have to remember that advocating cuts in public spending pre 2007 would not have been just brave, but would actually have come across as being weird. We have the money, the Irish voters would have said, why not spend it? The fact is, this country is just not big enough to sustain a party that would have wanted to do the right thing for the long term. Benchmarking, on the other hand, and Mary Harney has admitted this, was where the PDs did fail, not ensuring results for the vast sums of money paid out. But again, people forget: When the PDs did advocate public sector reform in 1997, they lost half their seats.