The Progressive Democrats are one of Ireland's political parties and currently the junior partner in a coalition government with Fianna Fáil. They are one of the country's smaller parties, but have had a significant degree of influence over the years, due to their occasional spells in government, and the high profile commanded by many of their members. In Irish terms, they are socially left of centre, supporting a secular, liberal agenda, but economically right of centre, calling for an economy run on a free market basis, as well as tax reform to favour business. These economic policies have led wags to term them "The Regressive Plutocrats".
The party was founded by Desmond O'Malley in December of 1985, with a call to "all democrats of goodwill who share my beliefs and my confidence that the face of Irish politics can be transformed". As a member of Fianna Fáil, O'Malley had been one of the most senior figures in Irish politics, but his ongoing conflict with his party leader Charles Haughey had led to his being drummed out of that party. He took this opportunity to call for a realignment of Irish politics, doing away with the old divisions along Civil War lines, and rallying supporters of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael around a platform based on his own views. These views were essentially those of economic and social liberalism, coupled with an insistence on high standards of ethical behaviour from public representatives. This contrasted with the social conservatism of much of the political establishment, and the decidedly low ethical standards of many of O'Malley's former party colleagues.
O'Malley had a degree of success in attracting prominent members of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to the PDs in the early stages. Many others considered defecting, but found it too difficult to abandon their traditional loyalties. In any case, the PDs' first election campaign was a resounding success for such a young party, winning 14 seats with an 11.8% share of the national vote. However, this election is to date the party's electoral high water mark, and they currently hold only 4 seats in Dáil Éireann. Many who supported them in the early days felt betrayed when, in 1989, they entered government with Charles Haughey and Fianna Fáil. This particular coalition, however, was to be cut short in 1992 when Albert Reynolds accused O'Malley of lying to the tribunal which was set up to investigate fraud in the beef industry.
Mary Harney took over as party leader in 1993, and since 1997, the party have participated in a relatively stable coalition with Fianna Fáil, albeit one which is propped up by the support of 4 conservative independent TDs. Although the outcome of upcoming elections cannot be predicted, there are signs that the PDs' support base in being reabsorbed by its partners in government. It is clear that they have played an important part in setting the agenda for Irish economic reform over the past two decades, but it is not clear if they can continue to differentiate themselves from the larger parties enough to continue in independent existence.