PDs Vote to Disband Party

Mary Harney is likely to continue as health minister at least until after the European and local government elections next June, despite the weekend decision to disband the party she helped found 23 years ago, the Progressive Democrats.

Harney, who said she will not be joining any other political party now or in the future, indicated she would like to retain charge of the health portfolio, but conceded she had no automatic entitlement to remain in Cabinet as an individual member of the Dail (Parliament), and her future as a minister was entirely a matter for Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen.

While Cowen didn't immediately indicate his intentions he did say, in a statement commenting on the winding up of the PDs, that Harney enjoyed his confidence and support and was a valued and experienced member of government.

Harney will be only the second minister since the foundation of the state not to be aligned to a political party.

James Dillon was Minister for Agriculture between 1948 and 1951 when he was an independent TD (member of Parliament). He later rejoined Fine Gael, from which he had resigned in 1942 over its stance on neutrality during the Second World War.

The PDs, founded as a breakaway from Fianna Fail by Des O'Malley and Harney in protest at Charles Haughey's leadership, have been floundering in recent years.

When Harney gave up the leadership to enjoy her changed domestic circumstances as a relative newlywed, former Justice Minister Michael McDowell succeeded her.

But the party failed to flourish with him at the helm and there was deep grass-roots dissatisfaction at his failure to pull out of government during the controversy over former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's finances.

McDowell resigned as leader and retired from politics when the PDs in May last year lost six of its eight Dail seats in a general election, including his own.

With support for the party continuing to decrease a special convention was held last Saturday in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, and delegates backed the leadership in its conclusion that the PDs had no viable political future.

An amendment calling for the party to continue in existence was defeated by 201 to 161 votes.

An estimated 500 members attended the meeting, which heard passionate speeches for and against disbanding.In what several delegates described as a powerful speech, Harney told the meeting it was her saddest day in politics, made more poignant by the fact that 23 years previously, to the day, she was in O'Malley's home planning the formation of the PDs.

She said the party no longer had a leadership with the required energy, caliber and standing to take it into the future.

The party's TDs and senators and the national executive are due to meet later this week to decide upon the formal legal and financial arrangements on winding down which is expected to take place over several weeks.

Already, some grassroots activists are looking at forming a new party. But it's widely expected that the majority will revert to former loyalties, which include both Fianna Fail and the main opposition party, Fine Gael.

While Harney will not be joining any political party, the only other PD in the Dail, Noel Grealish, is expected to join Fianna Fail, but said he will stay with the PDs "until the final curtain comes down."

"I was there at the beginning and I'm going to be there at the end," he said.

Party leader Senator Ciaran Cannon said he will not make a decision on his future until after Christmas. He has been approached by both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, but is said to be leaning towards the latter.

Fine Gael is likely to benefit most at the polls from the demise of the PDs.

A noticeable statistic is that, although founded by disenchanted Fianna Fail members, a consequence of the 23 years' existence of the PDs was that Fine Gael failed to win a place in government throughout that period.

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