Their disappearance will not be widely lamented.
When the PDs formed in 1985, economically and socially liberal politics had few consistent advocates in Ireland. As an enterprise-friendly party representing modern values, it proved a welcome tonic to the political establishment, with its civil war hang-ups and perpetual stench of corruption. The upwardly mobile classes found their platform of prosperity and a break from the nostalgia of soldiers and tribes appealing. A little over a year after its formation, the nascent party secured 14 seats in the 25th Dáil.
Over the years though, the party failed to consolidate its potential and its death has been endlessly predicted. After a protracted period of drifting and polling at between one to three per cent of the vote, it seems that now really is time to pack up.
Should the imminent end of the PDs be seen as a defeat for its values? Quite the contrary. Its founder Des O’Malley determined not to be “one of the lads” and instead identified with a once frustrated demographic. Ireland has transformed as a nation over the past two decades though. Narrow victory for the “yes” camp in the 1995 divorce referendum and the blossoming of the “Celtic Tiger” economy marked a shift in emphasis amongst established parties towards the PDs natural territory.
But while it was unable to make electoral hay from the benefits of the low corporation tax it advocated, as Ireland enters recession, the party considered most closely with associated with that market liberal agenda has naturally paid the price.
Its positive associations with social reform have also been eroded. The party’s spells in coalition government (they currently hold the health portfolio) have seen its implacably liberal image tarnished on issues like abortion. Today, as even essentially conservative parties like Fine Gael argue for the recognition of civil unions, the party has lost much of its capital as a uniquely socially progressive force. Few would argue that it has succeeded in remaining true to its original principles – allowing itself to be cast as little more than a party of heartless tax-slashers.
In the UK we have not seen the downfall of a party with parliamentary representation since the rump SDP wound up. After the bulk of the party had merged into the new Liberal Democrats, and faced with a Labour party that had embraced much of what it represented, the electoral space it had once occupied effectively disappeared.
Parties like the Progressive Democrats and the SDP may succeed in forcing national politics to realign in tune with trends that already existed in society, but when they fail as organisations their pioneers can be left estranged from that political mainstream. In his diaries, Paddy Ashdown noted dispiritedly that a bitter David Owen had advised departing SDP members to join either Labour or the Conservatives.
The cannier activists do get out in time to plough their furrows elsewhere. The SDP’s youth wing alone gave us columnists, civil libertarians, ministers and a scurrilous blogger, who now happens to be a member of the PDs.
The PD exodus has not yet come. Following much speculation, one the party’s two remaining members of the Dáil, Noel Grealish, has decided to stick with them until the end – but is expected to join coalition partners Fianna Fáil soon afterwards.
To some extent, the PDs simply pre-empted unavoidable evolution in Irish politics, but their electoral impact also acted as a catalyst to hasten change in their political rivals – and while the party will disappear with little popularity, it can take some satisfaction in a job completed. The party may not have broken the mould, but for better or worse, like the SDP, it did help to re-cast it.