It is the early 1990s. I am enjoying a nice beer in an agreeable hostelry in Greifswald. Günther walks in.
Günther: You remember Martin Bangemann?
There is a long pause, almost a Pinter pause.
Myself: Oh, the politician? Now that’s a name I haven’t heard for ages. What about him?
Günther: He was just in the paper this morning.
Myself: What for? Is he dead or what?
Günther: No, it turns out he’s a European commissioner.
Myself: Holy living fuck. How did that happen?
Günther: Well, I suppose somebody must have thought it was a good idea.
Funny, isn’t it, how people or even organisations can slip your mind? Ciarán Cannon has just called time on the Desocrats, although the last rites will have to wait a month, and a few diehards might be tempted to carry on as Continuity Progressive Democrats. And I’m sure the general public will have reacted in the same way as when you hear that some old Hollywood actor has died and you say, “I thought he was dead years.”
Take Noel Grealish. For months now you’ve been seeing occasional stories in the press that Noel was about to jump ship to Fianna Fáil, and take the party’s Galway councillors with him. Then a few weeks later you’d hear that Noel Grealish was going to defect to Fianna Fáil, and you’d say to yourself, “Has he not gone already? Jesus, he’s taking his time about it.” Such is the fate, I suppose, of the moribund party.
So the Sunday papers were all full of the imminent death of the PDs and their legacy to the Irish political scene. But they really were a curious bunch, weren’t they? It says something about the unideological nature of Irish politics that, when they were launched in 1985, nobody had a clue what they stood for except that they were against Charlie. Des O’Malley had been in politics a very long time, but nobody seemed to know what his politics were. Garret FitzGerald, who knew him better than most, said years later that he encouraged Dessie to form a new party but he had no idea it would be a rightwing party. Oh, how innocent we once were…
And so the new party was launched, and it looked fresh, and it had some impressive-looking personages, and it had a great name – who wouldn’t want to be progressive or democratic? And it quickly surged to something like 28% in the polls. Then the voters got a look at the eclectic Desocrat ideological mix – Thatcherite economics, total political correctness and a neo-unionist line on the north – and the party settled down at the 4% or so that was probably its natural sociological base. Ideology remains a niche market.
Des Fennell described this as D4, which had had a slightly social democratic cast in favour of the public sector (for good self-interested reasons) hiving off a conscious right wing. I think there’s something to that, certainly with regard to the PD milieu in Dublin, as opposed to whatever rural personalities would build up a personal base. On the other hand, you needed those strong individuals, as can be seen from the party’s sorry state since the last election, which has left Cannon in the almost poetic position of trying to lead a moribund party from the mausoleum-like surroundings of the Seanad.
And what of this great legacy? The most extravagant claims of course come from Collins, but the general thrust is that the Desocrats protected Ireland from the demons of nationalism, unreconstructed Catholicism and socialism. Furthermore, they kept Fianna Fáil honest, not necessarily in the financial sense, but in terms of stopping FF devolving into a Blaneyite party. (This derives from a peculiar anti-Haughey reading of history, linked not least to Jack Lynch having acted as the PDs’ grey eminence.) They were the trailblazers of partnership and the liberal agenda. And so on.
This is almost certainly a big overstatement. As was pointed out on Cedar Lounge, the secularising liberal agenda really begins with FitzGerald (who only got inconsistent support on this from O’Malley) and the Boss himself could claim credit for partnership. What has their significance been? In ideological terms, probably as outriders for hard rightist positions that the bigger parties could then water down for public consumption. In Machiavellian terms, which would matter more to Bertie, as a lightning conductor for discontent with Fianna Fáil. One imagines Biffo will miss the lightning conductor, if he doesn’t manage to shuffle that role off onto the Greens.
Ah well, goodbye then. Can’t really say it’s been nice knowing you, but the landscape will be a little less colourful without you.