Protest voice or a lasting political phenomenon? ``It's an element of both,'' replies former Cabinet Minister Desmond O'Malley about his new Progressive Democratic Party, which is growing like a brush fire.
The party, which began only last December, already has four members represented in the Irish Parliament, as a result of defections from the opposition Republican Party. But thousands of people, many of them with no prior political affiliations, have signed up as new members after hearing Mr. O'Malley address capacity crowds in places as diverse as Dublin, Galway, Cork, and Limerick.
Recently, an Irish Times poll put the Progressive Democrats in second place with 25 percent of the vote, pushing the ruling United Ireland Party led by Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald into third place with 23 percent. O'Malley's former political party, the Republican Party, led by his arch rival, Charles Haughey, came out on top with 42 percent of the vote.
O'Malley, interviewed in Dublin recently, believes some of his party's strength can be attributed to disenchantment with the two major political parties, the opposition Republican Party and the ruling United Ireland Party.
But he also believes support comes from a desire to break the mold of Irish politics.
``It derives from people, especially young people, tired of a political system in this country based on the civil-war divisions of 65 years ago, rather than [on] any ideological or policy divisions, and which they think -- and I think -- is largely irrelevant,'' says the politician, adding: ``We're sick of this confrontation in party politics which is based on a distant historical event.''
Visitors to Ireland are usually hard pressed to differentiate, in ideological terms, between the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of Irish politics, the Republican Party and the United Ireland Party, which are both essentially middle-class parties.
They owe their differences largely to the separate roles they played in the fight for Irish independence more than half a century ago. The United Ireland Party worked within the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, which partitioned Ireland into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, as it is today. The Republican Party fought for a united Ireland.
The Progressive Democrats come under fire for not spelling out their party program, a charge that O'Malley has publicly defended on the basis that the party would not have gotten off the ground if it had spent valuable time producing policy papers. But O'Malley's message, stressing less dependence on the state and the need to create wealth, has left political observers little doubt about where he stands politically. Liberal critics accuse him of being a ``Thatcherite.''
But neatly categorizing the Progressive Democrats is not that easy, as O'Malley's own assessment of his party indicates.
``In economic terms, we are largely conservative, because in a sense we favor enterprise and incentive,'' he says. ``In social terms, we could be described as liberal.'' O'Malley was expelled from the Republican Party on Feb. 26, 1985 for refusing to vote against making contraceptives freely available in Ireland.
``In relation to Northern Ireland,'' he adds, ``we would not take an aggressive attitude . . . .''
Asked just how far he backed the Anglo-Irish agreement signed last November, O'Malley replied that he was very much in support of the accord -- ``in its entirety.'' The agreement gives the Republic a say for the first time in the running of Northern Ireland's affairs, but it guarantees there will be no change in the present constitutional status of Northern Ireland, unless a majority in that province decides otherwise.
While O'Malley may give Dr. FitzGerald total support on Northern Ireland, he is highly critical of the government's economic performance.
Ireland is saddled with Western Europe's highest unemployment rate, running around 18 percent, and one of the highest per capita debts in the world.
The debt problem is a holdover from previous administrations. But O'Malley criticizes the heavy borrowing rates ``indulged in by the government'' which, he says, keeps interest rates high and provides no incentives for businessmen.
O'Malley also considers it irresponsible that state expenditures in Ireland exceed 60 percent of GNP (meaning that more than half of all money spent on goods and services in the country is spent by the state). He says this is an ``extraordinarily high'' figure when compared with just a little over 30 percent of GNP for most of Western Europe.
``It's alarming when you think Ireland is a country which is not socialist, and socialist ideology is rejected here,'' he says.
O'Malley is confident that his Progressive Democrats could hold the balance of power at the next election, which must be held before the end of 1988.
With a conservative guess, based on a middle range of poll findings, he expects to win some 32 of the 165 seats in the House of Representatives. The conventional wisdom is that he could displace the current junior partner in the government coalition, the small Labor Party, or alternatively unite with his old party, the Republican Party -- provided it was led by someone other than Charles Haughey, with whom he has frequently disagreed.