• PD article in latest issue of Village

    The latest issue of Village, details of which are available here, features an article I’ve been working on about the Progressive Democrats (on page 26 & 27).

    The article looks at the real and more behind-the-scenes reasons why the party fared so badly during the 2007 General Election and to some degree what problems the party finds itself in at present.

    It is based around a number of interviews I conducted with existing and former party members, candidates, workers and advisers, all of which took place over the last month or so.

    The article that appears in print is rather different from my final draft, although the information and points raised by my interviewees naturally remains intact. I’ve not got a transcript of the published piece yet but you can read my final draft below the fold – with that in mind please excuse any typos or mistakes.

    As you can see the people I spoke to were not quoted and remain anonymous, which was perfectly understandable. That said, the lack of quotes made it harder to differentiate between my straight narrative and an outside opinion – where normally an interviewee’s opinion would be framed in quotation marks here it had to be prefaced with “one member/candidate said” or something similarly blunt.

    As for the published version, well you’ll have to pick up Village to read how that turned out!

    Michael McDowell recognised the Progressive Democrats had internal communication, ideological and structural problems when he became its leader in September 2006, according to those who worked for and with the party during its 2007 election campaign. However the mistakes he inherited, along with the ones he made during his four years as party president and nine months as leader, ensured he never had the chance to undertake his post-election plan for the party, similar to the one he set out in his 2000 document “What’s Next?”.

    Some of the party’s candidates and staff suggest that one of McDowell’s biggest mistake as leader was to surround himself with the wrong people in the run up to the election, particularly Cormac Lucey whom was one of McDowell’s advisors in the Department of Justice beforehand. After Lucey was brought in many in the party were concerned due to his lack of party political experience and knowledge of the Progressive Democrats’ policies. Like McDowell he was also seen as someone who was out of touch with the average voter.

    Many also point to the removal of Katharine Bulbulia from the position of programme manager as a significant mistake. Bulbulia had been Harney’s programme manager for her entire tenure as Tánaiste and was considered one of her closest advisors and confidants but was removed by McDowell when he became leader.

    While her closeness with Harney was of little consequence, and perhaps even seen negatively by McDowell, her importance lay in her experience with Bertie Ahern’s equivalent, Gerry Hickey. Due to their time spent as programme managers, both had built up a strong working relationship with each other that proved irreplaceable in the short period of time before the 2007 election.

    Bulbulia was eventually replaced by John O’Brien, who had been a justice advisor to Harney in the past, but not until after the first crisis surrounding Ahern’s finances arose in late September. Coming just two weeks after McDowell was named as leader, this crisis highlighted the lack of communication between the two leaders and the two parties. Rather than have the issue dealt with more directly behind closed doors, McDowell’s hesitance was forced into the public where communication with Ahern seemed to take place through the media.

    The manoeuvres made by the PDs during the crisis were directed entirely by McDowell and his advisors and for many this extreme and regular change in tact was seen as typical of his very extreme personality.

    Even with O’Brien in place his short time as programme manager meant that the same sequence of events occurred again in May when further information on Ahern was published. However this time McDowell looked to senior party figures for opinions and was told that pulling out of Government would leave the party completely isolated due to their consistent attacks on Fine Gael and Labour.

    However it is agreed within the party that many of the problems McDowell faced were not entirely of his making. One of the biggest problems he inherited was the local structure of the party, which had been badly organised since its creation in 1985. Candidates in some constituencies felt that the senior party members were ignoring their areas and concerns and were not communicating or working with them to any extent. One member also criticised the short-term thinking of the party which failed to give candidates time to build up a reputation locally over a series of local and general elections.

    This issue was never addressed by Harney during her 13-year leadership, nor was it by McDowell himself whom, as party president, was tasked with building the party’s membership and local base.

    By 2004 it was clear that the party’s local strength had shown no sign of improvement, with the party failing to make any gains in that year’s local election despite aiming to double their seat share to 60. Despite this little was done to find the route of the problem, nor were any new measures taken to begin to turn this around.

    As the general election approached few of the party’s 30 election candidates stood much chance of election and according to some candidates, co-ordination in many areas between head quarters and local bases was often approaching non-existent. One candidate said ended up publishing all of his own canvassing material as what was sent to him was unsuitable while others said major local decisions were made by the party without any local consultation.

    One of the more notable examples of this disconnect was in Dublin South Central. This constituency contained the Progressive Democrats’ best vote-getter in the 2004 local election, Cait Keane, who had taken 2,814 (a 9.6% share) first preference votes in the Terenure-Rathfarnham constituency at the time. However Keane decided not to run in the general election for personal reasons and so the party began to search for a second candidate to run alongside Ben Doyle.

    The party had courted both David McWilliams and Eddie Hobbs – the latter of whom spoke at the party’s conference in 2006 – for the ticket, but both had turned down the offer early on. Economist Sean Barrett, on the other hand, was said to be giving serious consideration to running for them when pianist Frank McNamara was unveiled by the party instead.

    McNamara, who was announced by McDowell shortly after he became leader but invited to run for the party by Harney before she had resigned, was brought into Dublin South Central without any internal consultation with the party’s existing local base there.

    According to people involved in the party at the time, Doyle was not aware of McNamara’s candidacy while neither he nor McDowell had met him until minutes before the announcement. In the end both candidates failed to get more than 500 votes each and were eliminated at the third count, although McNamara is said to have intentions towards staying in politics.

    In areas where stronger candidates were running there were many other factors damaging their support. Many spoke about being seen as good individuals by voters, but ones who were hindered by either their leader or their party both of which had developed negative reputations as uncaring and selfish. One candidate suggested that had all PD candidates run as independents they would all have ended up with improved first preference numbers, even if they still fell short of a seat.

    Another said that McDowell’s decision to use negative campaigning hindered their performance and cited a largely sensible party document on the environment which was ruined by a few pages of attacks on the Greens. During the campaign McDowell oversaw all the party’s election material and documents and put many hours into their development and production.

    The issues endured with internal communication were echoed by the party’s external communication during the campaign too, which some candidates felt had failed to deal with media coverage effectively.

    People like Ian Noctor and Seamus Mulconry, who had been charged with managing communications at the party, left in late 2006 and early 2007 which instantly weakened the party’s team going into the election. Candidates complain that this meant that media coverage was not being monitored and things like rebuttals were not being issued with the same efficiency as with other parties, however those who were involved with the communications team say the party’s size was the main reason for the poor coverage.

    They point to the higher number of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael party activists who were able to contribute to phone-in shows on radio, coupled with the Progressive Democrats’ 2002 vote share, which under RTÉ’s strict rules limited the coverage they were willing to give the party during the election. One of the communications workers said that even coverage of the party’s response to the second Ahern financial scandal was counted as part of their election coverage, meaning that many of their policy launches and press conferences were overlooked by the state broadcaster.

    As a result of the long-term lack of communication, particularly between local party structures and HQ, the party membership was divided into three broad ideological camps by the time the election arrived. Some members were to the right in terms of societal and economic issues, others were to the left on both, while others still were on the right economically and the left socially.

    This occurred because individual members, typified by Tom Parlon in Laois/Offaly, had carried with them a large support base who voted on personality rather than party. What it meant for the party as a whole was that any stance on any issue would risk alienating a particular constituency and so policy was diluted to appease all. As a result the party was forced to the centre even more than others and was competing with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for votes more than ever before.

    This ideological split has been carried over into what remains of the party after the election result. Shortly after the election Dublin North candidate and former Senator Tom Morrissey began to publicly question the legality of Harney’s reappointment as leader, suggesting it was against party rules. The reason behind his actions is seen by members of the party as part of his opposition to Harney and his attempt to force the quick change of leadership election criteria so he could launch a bid.

    In June 2006, Morrissey was the only member of the Progressive Democrats’ parliamentary party to support McDowell in his row with Harney.

    While he may have realised he was unlikely to be elected to the leadership anyway, people in the party say he was at least positioning himself as a candidate in order to secure one of the two Seanad seats on offer.

    Further dissidence came from party trustee Paul McKay who publicly criticised Harney’s decision to go back into Government with Fianna Fáil. McKay had been one of the three trustees to say that Harney had promised to step down on three occasions before she actually did in September 2006. His letter, which was contradictory to any stance he took on the matter previously, is seen by some as a result of his frustration at Harney whose leadership and late resignation he sees as largely responsible for the party’s woes. For others, particularly traditional supporters of Harney, it was seen as sour grapes from a McDowell loyalist.

    The perception now is that Senator Fiona O’Malley and relatively new member Colm O’Gorman will contest the leadership, assuming they fit the new criteria defined by the review committee.

    According to one member, when suggestions for the party’s new Senators were sought from the membership recently there was an obvious campaign by head quarters to push O’Gorman forward, with a view to him stepping into the leadership from there.

    This perceived campaign was said to be met with some resentment from members on the right of the party as O’Gorman’s more liberal perspective would not sit well with a lot of the conservative membership. Others feel that irrespective of his ideology, he has not been a member long enough to be made leader at this stage.

    The potential of O’Malley as leader is met with equal scepticism; with many saying that she is not seen as leadership material inside the party and is unlikely to have what it takes to rebuild the organisation in time for the 2009 local elections.

    Indeed it is now the case that the party’s reorganisation needs to happen on every level, as most of the senior and administrative roles have been vacated since May. At present there are just two employees – one of which is general secretary John Higgins – and two volunteers working in the party’s South Frederick Street HQ.