Progressive Democrats

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Progressive Democrats
An Páirtí Daonlathach
Founder/LeaderDesmond O'Malley
Founded21 December 1985 (1985-12-21)
Dissolved20 November 2009 (20 November 2009)
Headquarters25 South Frederick Street, Dublin 2
Youth wingYoung Progressive Democrats
IdeologyConservative liberalism
Classical liberalism
Social liberalism
Political positionCentre-right[4][5][6][7]
European affiliationEuropean Liberal Democrat and Reform Party
International affiliationLiberal International
European Parliament groupLDR (1989–1994)
ColoursGreen, dark blue

The Progressive Democrats (Irish: An Páirtí Daonlathach, literally "The Democratic Party" ), commonly referred to as the PDs, was a conservative-liberal[8][9] 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 per cent 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 was credited with shaping the low-tax, pro-business environment that contributed to Ireland's Celtic Tiger economic boom during the 1990s and 2000s,[10] as well as blamed for contributing to the subsequent Irish financial and economic crisis.[11]

On 8 November 2008 the party began the process of disbanding, and was formally dissolved on 20 November 2009.[12][13] The two Progressive Democrat politicians elected to the 30th Dáil, Mary Harney and Noel Grealish, continued to support the government as independent TDs, and 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.



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.

McDowell suggested a number of names for the party, including New Democrats, New Republic, National Party, Radical Party; Progressive Democrats was not among his suggestions.[14] O'Malley declared that the party ought to be pro-enterprise, in favour of economic participation by all, liberal and pluralist, hostile to institutional dependency, favourable to incentives, pro self-reliance, deregulating where possible, anti-monopoly and pro-competition, low-key on nationalism, stressing "real republican" values rather than "nationalistic myths".[14]

Electoral breakthrough and coalition[edit]

The first logo of the party, used during the 1980s

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. PD leader Desmond O'Malley served as Minister for Industry and Commerce.

When a scandal broke surrounding Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Brian Lenihan Snr's role in pressuring President Patrick Hillery not to allow then-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to dissolve the Dáil in 1982. The Progressive Democrats gave Haughey an ultimatum—unless Lenihan was sacked from cabinet, they would pull out of the coalition and support a no-confidence motion in the government. Haughey tried to force Lenihan to resign, and sacked him when he refused. Haughey was replaced in February 1992 by Albert Reynolds, and O'Malley retained his cabinet post.

Harney leadership[edit]

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.[15] 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.[a] 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 to 2009.

In 2005 Michael McDowell publicly took a firmly anti-republican position and named Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris as members of the IRA Army Council. The convention in Irish politics at this time was not to accuse Sinn Féin politicians of being members of the Army Council, in doing so McDowell broke with convention. He said that until the IRA disbanded Sinn Féin could not be involved in government, North or South.[14]

McDowell leadership and demise[edit]

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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] The following month, Tom Parlon announced that he was also leaving public life and would take up the position of Director General of the Irish Construction Industry Federation.[20]

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).[21] 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[22] and on 17 April, Senator Ciarán Cannon was elected leader, defeating fellow Senator Fiona O'Malley.[23]

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.[24] In January 2009 the party was still operating and in receipt of state funding,[25] including a Party Leader's Allowance paid to Minister Mary Harney,[26] but had ceased to receive funding by the following June. In March 2009, Noel Grealish became caretaker leader after Cannon's decision to join Fine Gael, and he retained the role for the remaining months of the party's existence.

The archives of the Progressive Democrats party were presented to University College Dublin on 10 June 2009.[27] 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.[27]

Later events[edit]

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 2004–2008) was elected in Dún Laoghaire for Fine Gael, Ciarán Cannon (PD Senator 2007–2009 / party leader 2008–2009) was elected in Galway East for the same party, while Noel Grealish (PD TD 2002–2009 / 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 Councillor Cáit 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.

Ideology and policies[edit]

The Progressive Democrats were described as conservative-liberal,[8][9][28] liberal,[29][30][31] and classical liberal.[32]

The party's 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.[citation needed]

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".[33] 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%.[34][35]

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."[36]

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".[citation needed] 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.[original research?]

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",[37] 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.[11]

Leadership history[edit]


Name Portrait Period Constituency
Desmond O'Malley 1985–1993 Limerick East
Mary Harney Mary Harney cropped.jpg 1993–2006 Dublin South-West
Dublin Mid-West
Michael McDowell McDowell says NO! (9826113044) (cropped).jpg 2006–2007 Dublin South-East
Mary Harney Mary Harney cropped.jpg 2007–2008 Dublin Mid-West
Ciarán Cannon Ciaran Cannon.jpg 2008–2009 Senator nominated by the Taoiseach
Noel Grealish Noel Grealish (official portrait) 2020 (cropped).jpg 2009 Galway West

Deputy leader[edit]


General election results[edit]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Margaret Buckley had led Sinn Féin between 1936 and 1950, but during a period where they held no seats in the Dáil and didn't contest elections.
  1. ^ Wyndham, Andrew Higgins; Humanities, Virginia Foundation Virginia Foundation for the (9 November 2006). Re-imagining Ireland. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813925448 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ "Progressive Democrats | political party, Ireland". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  3. ^ Roy, Ravi K.; Denzau, Arthur T.; Willett, Thomas D. (13 December 2006). Neoliberalism: National and Regional Experiments with Global Ideas. Routledge. ISBN 9781135993672 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ J. Timo Weishaupt (2011). From the Manpower Revolution to the Activation Paradigm: Explaining Institutional Continuity and Change in an Integrating Europe. Amsterdam University Press. p. 138. ISBN 978-90-8964-252-3. Archived from the original on 18 August 2017. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  5. ^ Karin Gilland (2013). "Ireland: neutrality and the International use of force". In Philip Everts; Pierangelo Isernia (eds.). Public Opinion and the International Use of Force. Routledge. p. 138. ISBN 978-1-134-60217-9. Archived from the original on 27 June 2014. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  6. ^ Arch Puddington; Aili Piano; Katrina Neubauer, eds. (30 September 2009). Freedom in the World 2009: The Annual Survey of Political Rights & Civil Liberties. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 356. ISBN 978-1-4422-0122-4. Archived from the original on 1 August 2018. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  7. ^ Liam Leonard; Iosif Botetzagias (2011). Sustainable Politics and the Crisis of the Peripheries: Ireland and Greece. Emerald Group Publishing. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-85724-761-2. Archived from the original on 9 August 2018. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  8. ^ a b Kerstin Hamann; John Kelly (2010). Parties, Elections, and Policy Reforms in Western Europe: Voting for Social Pacts. Routledge. p. 1982. ISBN 978-1-136-94986-9. Archived from the original on 29 July 2020. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  9. ^ a b Hans Slomp (2011). Europe, a Political Profile: An American Companion to European Politics. ABC-CLIO. p. 333. ISBN 978-0-313-39181-1. Archived from the original on 26 December 2018. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  10. ^ "Shaping the politics that spawned the Celtic Tiger". Irish Independent. 8 September 2006. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011. Retrieved 29 October 2008.
  11. ^ a b Creaton, Siobhan (24 February 2011). "FF-PD policy to blame for economic ills, claims report". Irish Independent. Archived from the original on 18 February 2013. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  12. ^ "Formal winding-up of PDs delayed for legal reasons". The Irish Times. 28 February 2009. Archived from the original on 8 November 2011. Retrieved 28 February 2009.
  13. ^ "Electoral Acts 1992 and 2001 – Register of Political Parties" (PDF). Iris Oifigiúil. 20 November 2009. Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 February 2011. Retrieved 12 January 2010.
  14. ^ a b c Collins, Stephen (2005). Breaking the Mould: How the PDs changed Irish politics. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. p. 226. ISBN 978-07171-4166-1.
  15. ^ Chapter 10 The Subterranean Election of the Seanad Archived 13 April 2020 at the Wayback Machine Michael Gallagher and Liam Weeks UCC
  16. ^ "Harney steps down as leader of PDs". RTÉ News. 7 September 2006. Archived from the original on 9 April 2008. Retrieved 16 February 2008.
  17. ^ "Michael McDowell confirmed as Progressive Democrats Party Leader". Progressive Democrats website. 11 September 2006. Archived from the original on 20 November 2007. Retrieved 16 February 2008.
  18. ^ "McDowell quits amid chaotic election for PDs". RTÉ News. 25 May 2007. Archived from the original on 17 January 2008. Retrieved 16 February 2008.
  19. ^ "Mary Harney asked to resume PD leadership". RTÉ News. 27 May 2007. Archived from the original on 30 May 2007. Retrieved 27 May 2007. The Chairman of the Progressive Democrats, Peter Wyer, has asked Mary Harney to assume the functions and responsibilities of party leader until the formation of the next Government.
  20. ^ "Parlon quits PDs for construction industry job". RTÉ News. 10 July 2007. Archived from the original on 22 January 2008. Retrieved 16 February 2008.
  21. ^ Boyes, Nicola (28 September 2007). "PDs set to broaden leadership criteria". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011. Retrieved 16 February 2008.
  22. ^ "PDs change leadership rules". RTÉ News. 16 February 2008. Archived from the original on 26 February 2008. Retrieved 16 February 2008.
  23. ^ "Senator Ciaran Cannon is the new leader of the Progressive Democrats". Progressive Democrats. 17 April 2008. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 17 April 2008.
  24. ^ "PDs vote to wind up political party". RTÉ News. 8 November 2008. Archived from the original on 11 December 2008. Retrieved 8 November 2008.
  25. ^ Coleman, Shane (11 January 2009). "A wind-up? PDs continue to receive state funding". Sunday Tribune. Retrieved 19 January 2009.[permanent dead link]
  26. ^ "Parties get €13.7m in State funding". The Irish Times. 26 June 2009. Archived from the original on 23 September 2021. Retrieved 26 June 2009.
  27. ^ a b "PDs to donate all archives of party's history to UCD". The Irish Times. 10 June 2009. Archived from the original on 8 November 2011. Retrieved 10 June 2009.
  28. ^ Geoffrey K. Roberts; Patricia Hogwood (2013). The Politics Today Companion to West European Politics. Manchester University Press. p. 188. ISBN 978-1-84779-032-3. Archived from the original on 23 September 2021. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  29. ^ Joe Wallace; Michelle O'Sullivan (2003). "Institutional Protection for Vulnerable Workers: Lessons from the Twentieth Century". In Frank Reid; Anil Verma (eds.). Trade and Labour Protection: Can the Two be Made to Work Together?. Presses Université Laval. p. 153. ISBN 978-2-7637-8031-3. Archived from the original on 27 June 2014. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  30. ^ Vít Hloušek; Lubomír Kopecek (2013). Origin, Ideology and Transformation of Political Parties: East-Central and Western Europe Compared. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-4094-9977-0. Archived from the original on 27 June 2014. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  31. ^ Claire Annesley, ed. (2013). Political and Economic Dictionary of Western Europe. Routledge. p. 278. ISBN 978-1-135-35547-0. Archived from the original on 27 June 2014. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  32. ^ Tom O'Connor; Anthony O'Halloran; Seamus Pattison (2008). Politics in a Changing Ireland 1960–2007: A Tribute to Seamus Pattison. Institute of Public Administration. p. 26. ISBN 978-1-904541-69-1. Archived from the original on 27 June 2014. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  33. ^ 'The distributive impact of budgetary policy: A medium term view' Tim Callan, Mary Keeney, John Walsh, ESRI Dublin, 2002.
  34. ^ "Budget 1997". Revenue Commissioners. Archived from the original on 17 May 2007. Retrieved 19 May 2007.
  35. ^ "Budget 2007". Revenue Commissioners. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 19 May 2007.
  36. ^ The Irish Times, 31 December 2004
  37. ^ "Remarks by Tánaiste, Mary Harney at a Meeting of the American Bar Association in the Law Society of Ireland, Blackhall Place, Dublin on Friday 21 July 2000" (Press release). Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. 24 September 2001. Archived from the original on 4 May 2007. Retrieved 19 May 2007. As Irish people our relationships with the United States and the European Union are complex. Geographically we are closer to Berlin than Boston. Spiritually we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin.

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