The Progressive Democrats - or better what is left of them after their crushing defeat in the last general election - have a new party leader. Early this morning Senator Ciaran Cannon (right), a relatively unknown 42-year-old town planner and former Councillor from Athenry, Co. Galway, was declared the winner after narrowly beating fellow Senator Fiona O'Malley by 51% to 49% in a ballot of PD members.
Under the party's electoral college system, the four members of the parliamentary party had 40% of the votes between them, while around 40 councillors and members of the National Executive had 30% and the remaining ca. 1200 party members had the remaining 30%.
By rolling out the artillery, the PD members sent a signal to Dublin, indicating that they want a fresh start. Senator Fiona O'Malley had initially been seen as the favourite to win, being the daughter of party founder Des O'Malley. But it is a good sign that family patronage is no longer the only important elment in Irish politics, even though it is still rampant in most parties (and most of all in Fianna Fáil).
Senator Cannon will start a national tour next Monday, during which he intends to meet PD members as well as the general public. He is regarded as a listening man and says the best policies are created by the people the impacts on. So new PD party policy will not be unveiled until a broad consultation takes place.
The new PD leader has a particular interest in issues of planning, especially rural planning. In his time working in the planning departments of Dublin and Galway county councils, Ciaran Cannon has come to believe in the need for a major reform of local government.
"A lot of inefficiency could be reduced by devolving power to local government, which also needs proper funding," he said. He also supports the development of a strong "Atlantic Corridor" to act as a counterbalance to Ireland's economically strong East coast.
After his official election this morning, Senator Cannon said that the local elections in 2009 would be crucial in deciding the future of his party. If they do not perform well, the PDs would have "to take serious stock of what the future holds".
He described the task of rebuilding the PDs as "a daunting one" and did not rule out a name change. But he says that this is not an issue for him at the moment.
Mary Harney, who had been a reluctant "acting" PD leader after Michael McDowell resigned, having lost his Dáil seat, wished Senator Cannon well and pointed out that it was the first time a PD leader came from the Seanad. She also gave Ciaran Cannon some advice - saying he would need to think on his own, as "the members do not always take a party in the right direction".
Ciaran Cannon was elected to Galway County Council in June 2004, representing Loughrea, and contested Galway East in the last general election, after which he was one of the Taoiseach's nominees to the Seanad. He is the head of the "Irish Pilgrimage Trust", a charity that cares for children and young people with disabilities.
It will be interesting to see if this relatively young and rather inexperienced politician, who would not look out of place in the Green Party, can revive the remnants of an almost dead party that has been utterly rejected by the electorate. Stranger things have happened in politics, but it will be a hard job for Senator Cannon and few will envy him or aspire to the task.
The Emerald Islander