Progressive Democrats

Progressive Democrats


      conservative political party founded as a result of a split within Ireland's major party, Fianna Fáil.

      The Progressive Democrat party was launched on December 21, 1985, principally by Desmond O'Malley, who sought to “break the moulds of Irish political life.” O'Malley had held ministries in all Fianna Fáil governments since 1970 but broke with party leader Charles Haughey (Haughey, Charles) over various issues, including contraception, economic policy, and the situation in Northern Ireland. The party was quickly supported by other Fianna Fáil dissidents, along with a few former supporters of Fine Gael and the Labour Party. Its first national conference was held in May 1986, by which time five sitting members of the Dáil (lower house of Parliament) and two members of the Seanad (upper house) had joined. In general elections in February 1987, the party secured almost 12 percent of the popular vote and 14 seats in the Dáil, seemingly gained at the expense of Fine Gael rather than Fianna Fáil. It lost eight seats in the next elections in 1989, but O'Malley then led his party into Fianna Fáil's first coalition government (1989–92). When this government fell, the Progressive Democrats secured 10 seats in the subsequent general election. O'Malley resigned as party leader in 1993 and was succeeded by Mary Harney, a cofounder of the Progressive Democrats and the first woman to lead an Irish party. Internal disagreements followed, with deputy leader Pat Cox eventually leaving to defend (successfully) his European Parliament seat as an independent and another deputy departing for Fianna Fáil. Support slumped in 1997, when only four deputies were returned as the party contested the election in alliance with Fianna Fáil, but the partnership did win enough seats to form a minority government. In the 2002 elections the Progressive Democrats doubled their number of seats and continued in the coalition government. Although the party fared poorly in 2007, winning just two seats, it remained in government.

Policy and structure
      Ideologically the party sought a niche as a secular party of the right, taking liberal positions on the “moral agenda,” accepting the reality of a divided Ireland, and promoting neoliberal economic policies, including lower taxation, privatization, fiscal restraint, and welfare reform. The party's representative in the European Parliament sat with the Liberal Group in that assembly. The party won much of its support by nominating and electing well-known local deputies who brought their personal followings with them, and, as its ideological territory became more crowded, it depended increasingly on personalities. Among its deputies elected to the Dáil in 1997, three had defected in 1985–86 from Fianna Fáil.

      Like most other Irish parties, the basic unit is the branch, which individual members join. Candidate selection is made within appropriate constituencies by delegates from the branches. There is an annual conference, with an Executive Committee to handle business in the interim, but the parliamentary party determines general policy and provides strategic leadership. Initial support was particularly strong among the middle class, particularly the commercial middle class, and was disproportionately urban and relatively young. At the beginning of the 21st century, as the party relied more and more on the personal followings of local notables, its support became more varied, though it continued to do best in urban areas.

Michael Marsh

Additional Reading
Dick Walsh, Des O'Malley: A Political Profile (1986), is a short biography of the party's founder, written just after the party was launched. Tom Lyne, “The Progressive Democrats,” Irish Political Studies, vol. 2 (1987), is a brief academic account of the party's early days.

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Universalium. 2010.

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