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The Legacy of the PDs

On the last programme of the “Bertie” series on RTE there was a clip of Mary Harney claiming credit for deregulation and tax cuts – the realisation of the PD agenda. And there was another clip of Charlie McCreevy acknowledging that without the PDs in government he would never have been able to achieve the depth of the income tax cuts he accomplished.

There is an irony (and a justice?) that such snippets should be broadcast just at a time when the horrors of the deregulated market should have been best exposed and when the consequences of the McCreevy/PD tax cuts have been exposed.

The deregulation agenda has resulted in the financial crisis that now has plunged the world into a depression and with it plunged hundreds of millions of people worldwide into misery and destitution. Deregulation spurred bankers, stockbrokers, financiers and other wide boys into a frenzy of greed, unperturbed by the recklessness and inevitable failure of the mortgage bubble.

The McCreevy/PD tax cuts has undercut the tax base of this State and consigned it to a prolonged economic downturn, unrelieved by the kind of stimulus that the British and the incoming Obama administration in the US are about to deploy.

But the iniquity of the PD presence in Irish politics and its legacy is far more extensive than that.

It may seem harsh to write in such damning terms about a party that was founded by Des O’Malley who had/has fine qualities of courage, persistence and forensic analysis.

I recall how in the mid-Seventies as Opposition spokesperson on Industry and Commerce, “marking” Justin Keating, one of the supposed intellectual heavyweights of the Fine Gael-Labour Government led by Liam Cosgrave, he unpicked with painstaking precision the deal Justin Keating did with Bula on the Navan zinc deposit, committing the State to an investment that proved disastrous. Justin Keating never recovered from that mauling and lost his seat in the following election.

He brought the same talents to bear in exposing the similarly disastrous export credit insurance scheme that Albert Reynolds managed in the period 1987-1989 largely to the benefit of Larry Goodman. It was that persistence that led to the establishment of the Beef Tribunal, now remembered as a massive waste of public monies – and indeed the contrived opacity of the report seems to justify that verdict – but which, in its dense detail, exposed an extraordinary execution of a bizarre policy (we have to be careful here!).

Des O’Malley had (I am sure also has) fine talents of intellect, determination and insight but there was a missing bit to do with an appreciation of the vicissitudes of people less fortunate than himself and his class, a missing bit which could have been contained (somewhat) within Fianna Fail had he ever become leader – had he hung in there almost certainly he would have become leader and Taoiseach at some stage. But in the unregulated new terrain of the Progressive Democrats that missing bit became defining.

He could not have done it on his own. He was ably assisted by Mary Harney and Michael McDowell. Odd, perhaps, in the case of Mary Harney, for she seemed to have some of the milk of human kindness about her (in her own blinkered eyes she retained that quality).

The PDs became more rapacious after Des O’Malley left the leadership. Under Mary Harney and then Michael McDowell, they targeted every vulnerable group in society, distressing the lives of tens of thousands, starting with single mothers in the 1997 election campaign (Mary Harney’s target), going on to Travellers (Michael McDowell cut grants to traveller movements), old people (the attempt by Mary Harney to legalise retrospectively the theft of the social welfare benefits of old people and then the recent medical card debacle), mentally-ill people (the location of the new Central Mental Hospital at a prison site at Thornton Hall, with the resultant additional stigma attaching to mental illness), and asylum seekers.

That latter, as represented in the citizenship referendum and constitutional change in early 2004, was an act of deep cynicism. Michael McDowell argued for this on the basis that there was a double “loop-hole” – pregnant women asylum seekers were coming to Ireland to give birth here, so that their children would be Irish citizens (on the basis of the constitutional change brought about following the Good Friday Agreement) and, on that basis, to claim asylum for themselves and their spouses. The second “loophole” being that such women and their spouses would then be able to claim the right of residency in any EU Member State.

Both claims were false. The Supreme Court had closed off the first “loophole” in a shocking judgment in January 2003 and the second “loophole” was a mirage. But the effect of that initiative was to bring the asylum issue on to centre stage during the European and Local elections of 2004, with all the attendant racial undertones and racial overtones – and predictably so.

But it is the part the PDs played in intensifying the inequality in Irish society that has been its most pernicious legacy. Ireland is now one of the most unequal societies in the developed world and, as a direct consequence of that, the number of premature deaths arising from such inequality is in excess of 5,000 a year. This has been established by Roth Barrington, former head of the Health Research Bureau, on the basis of a report by the Institute for Public Health, “Inequalities in Mortalities”, a report entirely ignored by the PDs and, notably, by Mary Harney, as Minister for Health.

Des O’Malley certainly would be discomforted by the realisation that the PDs were responsible, albeit indirectly, for the deaths of far, far more people that the IRA ever was. That is the legacy of the PD.

By Vincent Browne