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Progressive Democrats

Progressive Democrats
Founder & Leader Desmond O'Malley
Leader Mary Harney
(1993–2006), (2007–08)
Leader Michael McDowell
Leader Ciarán Cannon
Leader Noel Grealish
Founded 21 December 1985 (1985-12-21)
Dissolved 20 November 2009 (20 November 2009)
Headquarters 25 South Frederick Street, Dublin 2
Youth wing Young Progressive Democrats
Ideology Liberalism
Conservative liberalism
Classical liberalism[1]
Political position Centre-right[2][3][4][5]
International affiliation Liberal International
European affiliation European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party
European Parliament group LDR (1989–94)
Colours Green, Dark blue
Politics of the Republic of Ireland
Political parties

The Progressive Democrats (Irish: An Páirtí Daonlathach, lit.: The Democratic Party), commonly known as the PDs, was a pro-free market liberal[6][7][8][9][10] and conservative-liberal[11] political party in the Republic of Ireland.

Launched on 21 December 1985 by Desmond O'Malley and other politicians who had split from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats took liberal positions on divorce, contraception, and other social issues. The party also supported economic liberalisation, advocating measures such as lower taxation, fiscal conservatism, privatisation, and welfare reform. It enjoyed an impressive début at the 1987 general election, winning 14 seats in Dáil Éireann and capturing almost 12 percent of the popular vote to temporarily surpass the Labour Party as Ireland's third-largest political party.

Although the Progressive Democrats never again won more than 10 seats in the Dáil, they formed coalition governments with Fianna Fáil during the 26th Dáil (1989–92), the 28th Dáil (1997–2002), the 29th Dáil (2002–07) and the 30th Dail (2007–09). These successive years as the government's junior coalition partner gave the party an influence on Irish politics and economics disproportionate to its small size. In particular, the party has been credited with shaping the low-tax, pro-business environment that contributed to Ireland's Celtic Tiger economic boom during the 1990s and 2000s,[12] as well as blamed for contributing to the subsequent Irish financial and economic crisis.[13]

On 8 November 2008 the party began the process of disbanding, and was formally dissolved on 20 November 2009.[14][15] The two Progressive Democrat politicians elected to the 30th Dáil, Mary Harney and Noel Grealish, continued to support the government as independent TDs, and Mary Harney also continued as Minister for Health and Children.

The party was a member of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR). Its youth wing was the Young Progressive Democrats.


  • History 1
  • Policies 2
  • General election results 3
  • Leadership 4
    • Leader 4.1
    • Deputy Leader 4.2
    • President 4.3
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • External links 7


The party was founded in 1985 by Desmond O'Malley, a former senior minister in Fianna Fáil governments under Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey. O'Malley was a strong opponent of Haughey and was involved in a number of leadership heaves against Haughey, who was popular and controversial in equal measure. O'Malley had lost the Fianna Fáil whip in the Dáil in 1984 because of his support for the New Ireland Forum report and was finally expelled from Fianna Fáil early in 1985 for "conduct unbecoming" a member when he refused to support Fianna Fáil's opposition to the introduction of contraception.

O'Malley joined with Fianna Fáil members Mary Harney, Bobby Molloy and Pearse Wyse, Fine Gael TD Michael Keating and former Fine Gael activist Michael McDowell to set up the new party. The breakaways were dissatisfied with the policies of existing parties, which they viewed as being insufficiently liberal, both economically and on social issues such as divorce and contraception. In Ireland in 1985, when personal income above £7,300 per annum was taxed at 60 percent, the country's national debt was 104 percent of GDP, unemployment was 17.3 percent, the Progressive Democrats' liberal reformist agenda was considered especially radical.

In the 1987 general election the new party won 14 seats and 11.9% of the vote, becoming the third-largest party in the Dáil. The Progressive Democrats formed the second-largest opposition party under difficult circumstances. The minority Fianna Fáil government introduced some of the economic reforms that the Progressive Democrats had recommended. Fianna Fáil was however largely supported by Fine Gael where the economy was concerned, and so the Progressive Democrats had difficulty being effective in opposition.

After the 1989 election the party had only six seats but formed a coalition government with Fianna Fáil, with Charles Haughey as Taoiseach, which was the first time Fianna Fáil entered coalition. Haughey was replaced in February 1992 by Albert Reynolds. PD leader Desmond O'Malley served as Minister for Industry and Commerce.

After the collapse of Reynolds' first administration later in 1992, O'Malley retired from the leadership of the party. Following the 1992 general election, John Dardis (Agricultural Panel) and Cathy Honan (Industrial and Commercial Panel) were elected to Seanad Éireann as part of an election pact with their politically polar opposites Democratic Left.[16] Mary Harney became the new leader after a bitter electoral contest with Pat Cox who later left the party. Harney was the first woman to lead any of the major Irish political parties. Harney served as Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) from May 1997 until September 2006 after a return to government in coalition with Fianna Fáil.

In the 2002 general election the party defied expectations by doubling its Dáil seats to eight, although its share of the vote declined slightly to 4%. In total the Progressive Democrats participated in coalition governments four times, on each occasion with Fianna Fáil (1989–1992; 1997–2002; 2002–2007; 2007–2009), and also with the Green Party from 2007–2009.

On 7 September 2006 Mary Harney announced that she was stepping down as leader of the Progressive Democrats. She expressed a wish to stay on as Minister for Health.[17] On 10 September, Michael McDowell was elected unopposed as Party Leader, having been nominated by Tom Parlon and that nomination being seconded by Liz O'Donnell.[18] Liz O'Donnell became Deputy Leader and Tom Parlon became Party President.

The 2007 general election was a disastrous one for the party. The Progressive Democrats lost six of their eight seats in the 166-seat Dáil. Among those to lose their seats were party leader Michael McDowell, deputy leader Liz O'Donnell and party president Tom Parlon.[19] McDowell retired from public life after he lost his seat, and Mary Harney was asked by the party chairman to resume the role of party leader.[20] Tom Parlon announced on 10 July 2007 that he was leaving public life and would not seek a nomination to Seanad Éireann, or to contest the leadership of the Progressive Democrats. Instead he would take up the position of Director General of the Irish Construction Industry Federation.[21]

A committee headed by former Senator John Dardis recommended in September 2007 that the role of leader be taken on by a senator or councillor (although the party rules then required that the position must be held by a TD).[22] A meeting of the party's General Council on 16 February 2008 changed the rules to allow any senator, councillor or any party member with the support of 20 other members to stand for the party's leadership[23] and on 17 April, Senator Ciarán Cannon was elected leader, defeating fellow Senator Fiona O'Malley.[24]

The party's two remaining TDs, Mary Harney and Noel Grealish, entered into coalition government with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in the 30th Dáil. The party never recovered from this electoral collapse. On 8 November 2008, with all parliamentary members and founder Desmond O'Malley united in the opinion that the party was no longer politically viable, delegates to a special conference in Mullingar voted by 201 votes to 161 to bring the Progressive Democrats to an end.[25] In January 2009 the party was still operating and in receipt of state funding,[26] including a Party Leader's Allowance paid to Minister Mary Harney,[27] but had ceased to receive funding by the following June. The archives of the Progressive Democrats party were presented to University College Dublin on 10 June 2009.[28] At least 20 former Progressive Democrats councillors won seats on county, city and town councils at the 2009 local elections. Some were elected as Fine Gael candidates, some as Fianna Fáil and others as independents.[28]

At the 2011 general election 11 former Progressive Democrats members stood as candidates for the Dáil in a country-wide spread of constituencies. Subsequently, three former PD members were elected. Mary Mitchell O'Connor (PD Councillor 2004–08) was elected in Dún Laoghaire for Fine Gael, Ciarán Cannon (PD Senator 2007–09 / party leader 2008–09) was elected in Galway East for the same party, while Noel Grealish (PD TD 2002–09 / caretaker party leader 2009) was re-elected as an independent TD for Galway West. Several ex-PD members stood for election to Seanad Éireann in 2011. The only successful candidature was that of Cllr Cait Keane (FG), who had served on South Dublin County Council for the PDs between 1991 and 2008, and had stood for election in the Dublin South-Central constituency for the PDs in 1992, 1994 and 1997.


The Progressive Democrats' economic policies were based on economic liberalism. They supported the freedom of private enterprise and the lowering of taxes. They generally favoured privatisation; for example, they supported the privatisation of the previously state-owned airline Aer Lingus and communications company Telecom Éireann. They were also part of the break-up of airports company Aer Rianta and unsuccessfully lobbied for a private, competing second terminal in Dublin Airport. As acting PD leader and Minister for Health, Mary Harney was involved in the controversial extension of private-sector influence in health care. She pursued a policy of co-location of private hospitals on public hospital grounds and is seen as sympathetic to the privatisation of health insurance. However they opposed their coalition partner’s plans to privatise airports company Aer Rianta, on the grounds that a private monopoly would be worse than a public monopoly.

The party was a strong supporter of low taxation. As the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) stated in 2002: "On balance, budgets over the past 10 to 20 years have been more favourable to high income groups than low income groups, but particularly so during periods of high growth".[29] While the party was in government since 1997, the lower rate of income tax fell from 26% to 20% and the upper rate from 48% to 41%.[30][31]

They supported low corporation tax because they believe it encouraged business growth and enabled private enterprise to be rewarded. The party often claimed these policies were in part responsible for the "Celtic Tiger" economy. Dermot McAleese, emeritus professor of economics at Trinity College, Dublin, says that the emergence of the Progressive Democrats in 1985 may have had a more positive influence on the economy than some recognise. He argues the Irish low-tax, pro-business economy is based in large part on Progressive Democrat policies. "They proved that there was a constituency for this, and they gave the intellectual power to it."[32]

The party leaders rejected the idea that they are ruled by ideology alone. Former party leader Michael McDowell has said that he sees liberalism as not being on the left-right spectrum as it is a mix of the ideals of both. Mary Harney, on becoming health minister said "I don't get my politics from any ideology, I get it from my experience and common sense". Yet Harney was a controversial minister who attempted to extend private influence in the health service and McDowell's campaign in the general election included particularly strong attacks on Irish left-wing parties.

Despite having in its ranks the openly gay Colm O'Gorman, the Progressive Democrats did not support same-sex marriage. Instead, they claimed to propose legislating for civil union; however attempts by the Labour Party to legislate for civil unions in the previous Dáil had been forestalled by PD Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Michael McDowell, due to his insistence that non-sex relationships be recognised too. The Progressive Democrats again voted down the same bill in the current Dáil.

Both Progressive Democrats and other commentators have suggested that the party had a greater influence on government policy since 1997 than might be expected from its size. This belief appears to have some basis – as of September 2004 the party controlled two of the most important cabinet positions (Justice and Health), despite having less than one-tenth of the seats of its coalition partner Fianna Fáil.

In a 2000 speech to the American Bar Association, the then party leader Mary Harney appeared to express a desire that Ireland become "closer to Boston than Berlin",[33] adopting US free-market models for economic development, health, education, and other services rather than European Continental models because she believed that the continental countries (such as Germany and France), while having more equality had bad economies and high unemployment.

However in the midst of the ongoing Irish financial crisis, many opponents began to question the legacy of the Progressive Democrats. In a review of the Department of Finance Robert Wright, a Canadian economist, singled out the policies of the PD's and Fianna Fáil's 2002 election manifestos as contributing significantly to the 2008 property market crash.[13]

General election results

Election Seats won ± Position First Pref votes % Government Leader
14 / 166
Increase14 Increase3rd 210,583 11.8% Opposition Desmond O'Malley
6 / 166
Decrease8 Decrease5th 91,013 5.5% Coalition (FF-PD) Desmond O'Malley
10 / 166
Increase4 Increase4th 80,787 4.7% Opposition Desmond O'Malley
4 / 166
Decrease6 Steady4th 83,765 4.7% Coalition (FF-PD) Mary Harney
8 / 166
Increase4 Steady4th 73,628 4.0% Coalition (FF-PD) Mary Harney
2 / 166
Decrease6 Decrease6th 56,396 2.73% Coalition (FF-GP-PD) Michael McDowell



Deputy Leader


See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ The Economist: Civil-war politics, Ireland's political system still reflects the struggle for independence
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ Chapter 10 The Subterranean Election of the Seanad Michael Gallagher and Liam Weeks UCC
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ a b
  29. ^ 'The distributive impact of budgetary policy: A medium term view' Tim Callan, Mary Keeney, John Walsh, ESRI Dublin, 2002.
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ The Irish Times, 31 December 2004
  33. ^

External links

  • Progressive Democrats website – from the Wayback machine – 1 July 2007
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