Politicos from every corner of the country are currently busy holding their collective breath as the PD leadership race sways unpredictably between being a huge personality-based civil war and a complete non-starter; by Monday afternoon the party may have already found itself a replacement for Harney but it may too have found itself at the beginning of a potentially divisive inward debate on its own future.
Interestingly the soundings from political and media circles on what will or could happen next seem to be missing the point as to what actually should be going on. In reality it doesn’t matter how the next leader is found, be it by vote or default. In the same regard it doesn’t really matter who that leader is, be they person-of-the-people or enemy of the state #1. The only issue that does matter and that no one seems prepared to discuss just yet, is what the eventual leader is willing to do to pull their party back from the brink of an electoral catastrophe and possible extinction.
Mary Harney’s resignation has been met across the board with little more than surprise. Everyone, even the PD’s, were taken off guard and as the soon to be ex-Tainiste failed to give a clear and obvious justification for her decision the whispered rumours began to fly around thick and fast.
Her decision not to quit earlier this year was a ruse; the decision was delayed so it seemed that she was jumped rather than pushed. Or she did it to deflect attention away from another damning report on the Irish health service. Maybe there was a story about to break that would destroy her and the party, so she took a hit for the greater good. Or was it that she knew quitting now would be the only way her preferred succesor could have a chance of winning?
Perhaps one reason was that she has been paying attention to the regular polls that pain an increasingly bleak picture for the PD’s in the next general election. The last SBP/Red C poll (pdf) saw the PD’s grab a disgraceful 2% of the vote (with a 2% margin of error), which equates to just 3 DÃ¡il seats. If this poll was an exact representation of the political situation in the 30th DÃ¡Ãl then the PD’s would have been at the lowest point in their relatively short history.
While these poor poll results are unlikely to be the sole reason for Harney’s resignation they are sure to have played a role in making up her mind. It may be a case that she is attempting to jump from a sinking ship and pass blame for the party’s collapse to someone else or even that she sees the only chance of an electoral turn-around coming under a new leader but either way she feels her leadership at this difficult time is not the solution.
At this stage, whoever takes the leadership of the Progressive Democrats, and it really doesn’t matter who it is, needs to think hard about how they can save the party, and they must do it quickly.
An easy solution, but one fraught with risk, is to pull out of the coalition. This will allow the PD’s to distance themselves from an increasingly unpopular government and claim that the work being done there is not represenatives of the real PD agenda (even though Harney was willing to put up with it for so long). This would simply give the PD’s enough time to jump on the ABB (Anyone But Bertie) bandwagon and try and cut a patch that takes them out of the shadow of Fianna Fail.
If they did to this however they would probably find themselves extremely isolated in the DÃ¡il as a result. Besides this many voters believe that the PD’s are the real problem in Government, and a dislike for FF only comes by association. In this case pulling out of the coalition may benefit others more than it does the PD’s.
The truth is the party needs to shake the image it has gained as the bad-guys of Irish politics and this won’t come through symbolic gestures. Many voters have little time for the party’s policies even if they don’t know them all that well; the idea of privatisation seems to be an instantly negative one amonst most people for whatever reason. The party needs to either communicate itself better, somehow endear itself to the public more or else change policy towards something more acceptable (which would probably be equally suicidal).
There isn’t much time until the next general election, and there isn’t much time for the PD’s to turn themselves around. Changing the leader won’t do much, especially not if you just replace one unpopular member with another so it will be interesting to see what new direction the next leader promises to take the party on and if that new direction will be a change in policy, a change in attitude or an attempt to get the public to understand the party better than they already do. Either way it doesn’t matter who does it, it only matters what they do and how they plan to pull it off.