The PDs; The Limits of Liberty…

by John Boland

With Fine Gael busily devouring itself in the manner of one of Goya’s more nightmarish visions, I summoned up memories of A Family at War, that hugely entertaining RTE documentary series from a couple of years back in which disgruntled party members gleefully disembowelled each other as they recalled various leadership heaves.

This history of behaving badly in public seems peculiar to Fine Gael. You certainly wouldn’t get such frank exposure of intimate dirty linen from Fianna Fail, a party that’s far too canny to let internal enmities, resentments and vendettas show, but I had high hopes of long knives and spilt blood being a prominent feature of The PDs: From Boom to Bust (RTE1). The egos who’d been involved in setting up this 1980s breakaway party surely guaranteed at least that.

But alas no. Indeed, the pithiest soundbites to be found in this first instalment of a two-parter came from outside the Progressive Democrats. Labour’s Pat Rabbitte was in especially good form, describing the party as a “barrel of badgers” before going on to dub Mary Harney “the Simon Cowell of the political firmament” and to characterise Charlie McCreevy as “a cuckoo in the Fianna Fail nest.”

McCreevy was also in witty mood, saying of PD founder Des O’Malley that, though “great, great fun”, he’d “cause a row in an empty house” and of fellow-founder Micheal McDowell’s Fine Gael DNA that  “his blood is as blue as the Caribbean.”

I liked, too, Noel Grealish’s recollection of telling his ultra-Fianna Fail father that he was defecting to the PDs. “I’ve nine sons and only one bastard like you,” his father informed him. 

But that was as good as it got. Aside from the odd mild dig, O’Malley, Harney, McDowell, Pat Cox and Liz O’Donnell hadn’t a bad or even querying word to say about each other, which didn’t exactly make for riveting television. In fact, they came across as a smug little lot, with not a trace of self-doubt or even self-analysis in their make-up.

But Sam Smyth’s report, produced and directed by Angela Ryan, was short on analysis, too, and for anyone who wasn’t around at the time it offered no explanation for the party’s formation. At the outset we were cursorily informed that O’Malley had been expelled from Fianna Fail when he challenged Charlie Haughey’s leadership, but the enmity between the two men had been brewing for a long time and we learned nothing of that.

Nor, apart from the quintet mentioned above, did we hear from any of the party’s other main players. I had looked forward to recollections and insights from such former elected PDs as Martin Cullen, Geraldine Kennedy and Michael Keating, but the film didn’t even mention their names.

This first instalment of a very partial film ended at the 2002 general election. The party limped on for another few years, which could have been dealt with in five television minutes. Instead, there’s another hour to come. How will the makers fill it?

The Limits of Liberty (RTE1), which ended its three-part run this week, was very partial, too, though in a deliberately ideological way. The ubiquitous historian Diarmaid Ferriter (ubiquitous on RTE, anyway) had clearly an axe to grind and came across as a frowning latter-day version of the Covey from O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars – I fully expected him at any moment to start quoting from Jenersky’s Thesis on the Origin, Development and Consolidation of the Evolutionary Idea of the Proletariat.

An old-fashioned Dublin leftie, in other words, and nothing wrong with that (I’m a bit of an outmoded leftie myself), but his account of how the ordinary dacent man and woman had to fight for their rights  against a socially uncaring political and religious boss class turned out to be something of a trudge, and one that was fatally unleavened by any wit or even good humour.

It wasn’t averse to deadening cliches, either, many of them acquired from the Sybil Fawlty Academy of the Bleedin’ Obvious, as when we learned that “times were hard for most people in the ’40s and early ’50s”, that mass emigration was (what else?) “a damning indictment of economic and political failure” and that 1960 feminists were (you don’t say) “hungry for change.”

Matters weren’t helped by director Maurice Linnane’s cult-of-celebrity approach, which meant that two minutes weren’t allowed to go by without the presenter popping up in yet another eye-catching location – the only place he wasn’t standing outside seemed to be my own house, though I peeped out the window just to make sure. He must have been exhausted. Can RTE now give this poor man a well-earned sabbatical?

A week, then, of God save Ireland. In the meantime, God Bless Iceland, which was the name of a documentary by Helgi Felixson screened on RTE1, its title taken from a much-derided speech made by former Icelandic prime minister Geir H Haarde on the occasion of that country’s financial and economic meltdown in 2008.

Watching this arresting, fly-on-wall film, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was shot here. We heard Haarde declare that “depositors need not worry – we will guarantee their money.” We watched protesters railing about “abuses of power” and “corruption everywhere.” We saw construction workers being summarily laid off from building sites. And we heard the despairing man in the street observing that “the only thing to do is just smile and let them take the lot.” God bless Iceland/Ireland.

BBC4 screened a three-part series called Rude Britannia, which celebrated the irreverence and sauciness of the English character as manifested in etchings, lampoons, Victorian photographs, peepshows and seaside postcards. The films themselves should have been similarly cheeky, but instead they were hijacked by solemn-faced historians and sociologists earnestly assuring us that what we were watching was of profound social import, when all we wanted was to be titillated.

Still, mention of seaside postcards encouraged me to reread George Orwell’s The Art of Donald McGill, so my time wasn’t entirely wasted.

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