McDowell’s Northern Drama Sunday Business

Posted By: March 29, 2013

27 February 2005 By Pat Leahy

Is Michael McDowell trying to remake single-handedly the Northern peace process? In recent weeks, McDowell has been a whirlwind amalgam of propaganda supremo, chief of police, polit! ical leader and chief negotiator.

He has tormented Sinn FÈin and the IRA, attacking them as common thugs, as mafiosi wedded to a vast criminal underworld and unreconstructed political subversives, dedicated to the overthrow of the state.

Against them, McDowell stands by his principles and by the Republic. The fact that he has accepted Sinn FÈin’s bona fides at a time when criminal activity was taking place and worked closely with the party’s leaders in the past three years has tended to be overlooked.

Sitting in the D·il chamber watching Sinn FÈin deputies fume at him, McDowell has the look of a man who has waited all his political life for this role.

Lionised by editorial writers and columnists (showing ìleadership’ë and ìdecisiveness’ë, said the Irish Independent), he appears to many observers as if he is having the time of his life.

McDowell may be enjoying himself. But is he doing real and possibly lasting damage to the prospects of a settl! ement in the North, the return of self-government to its citizens and the establishment of political norms there?

His supporters say he is seeking much-needed clarity on issues that have been too long fudged, but are his outpourings counter-productive to the government’s stated aims? Is he weakening a republican leadership that wants to deliver a deal?

These questions were being asked in government circles last week, as opposition parties sought to exploit apparent divisions between Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his minister for justice.

Some Fianna F·il backbenchers, never convinced as fans, were privately hostile.

Sources close to several Fianna F·il ministers said that while they sympathised with McDowell’s analysis – and shared his feeling of having been betrayed by Sinn FÈin – he should now ìshut up for a while’ë.

ìHe doesn’t realise that his statements are heard differently in the North than they are in the South,î said one insider.

Anoth! er well-informed source agreed: ìMichael doesn’t understand how different the North is. It’s not that what he’s saying isn’t understood in the North, it’s that it’s understood differently.î

Briefings from government sources appeared in newspapers, cautioning McDowell that Ahern viewed his continued outbursts as unhelpful.

These were widely assumed to have come from Government Buildings and with Ahern’s authority.

That the reports were followed by a stirring defence of his justice minister by the Taoiseach in the D·il last Wednesday doesn’t mean they were inaccurate or ill-sourced – it’s simply the way that Ahern often sends out messages.

Nevertheless, Ahern’s insistence that the government sings from the same hymnsheet couldn’t hide the divergence between his analysis and McDowell’s of the state of play within the republican movement.

McDowell disputes what he calls the ìhard men/soft men’ë picture of the republican movement, in which Adams a! nd McGuinness edge the IRA nearer and nearer to disarmament and ultimate disbandment in return for demonstrable political gains that they can ìsell’ë to the IRA.

Instead, McDowell insists that the republican movement is united under a single leadership comprised of Adams and McGuinness, and the rest of the army council.

But, in recent days, Ahern has explicitly expounded the ìhard men/soft men’ë version of the world. If, as the government (and others), repeatedly insists, the ìball is in Sinn FÈin’s court’ë, then the most important question of the process now concerns the internal dynamics of the republican movement. That the Taoiseach and his Minister for Justice should have such differing analyses on this question is alarming some high-ranking officials.

Last Wednesday, Ahern attempted to move beyond these questions with a masterful performance in the D·il, centring on his ìwhat matters is getting a deal’ë conviction. But can McDowell now be part of achi! eving that deal?

Definitely, said one government insider.

ìTo be honest, I think he’s setting up a good cop-bad cop operation. But there also another reason behind all this – McDowell can’t stay away from a microphone.î

Another said: ìFor God’s sake, you don’t always have to say what’s on your mind.î

In one way, McDowell represents everything that Sinn FÈin detests about the ìDublin Establishment’ë. When many Sinn FÈin leaders were in jail, on active service with the IRA or simply throwing stones at the RUC in Derry, McDowell was gliding from Gonzaga to UCD to the Law Library.

Sinn FÈin views him as the epitome of the Cumann na nGael/Dublin professional/Free State mentality which was content to abandon Catholics in the North to their fate, preferring to secure the gates of the fearful Southern state and their privileged place within it. McDowell views Sinn FÈin, at its worst, as simply a group of fascists.

There are undoubted class and cu! ltural elements to the current mutual antipathy between McDowell and Sinn FÈin. But McDowell’s distaste for the republican movement comes also from his sense that the party’s electoral advance in the South – funded and supported by the IRA – represents a threat to the democratic integrity of the state.

What would happen if it held the balance of power, backed by an intact criminal and subversive infrastructure?

ìMichael came late to the team,î said one veteran of the peace process. ìHe’s only been on board for awhile.î

McDowell was an early and bitter critic of Hume and Adams and of their talks that led to the ceasefires and the peace process.

He denounced them as having ìset back the inter-community peace process very significantly .. . . doomed to failure’ë.

He opposed the lifting of Section 31, the granting of a US visa to Gerry Adams and regularly castigated Albert Reynolds’ government for its gestures to republicans. At one stage, he criticis! ed Reynolds for using the word ìdemilitarisation’ë in relation to the North.

But since he joined the cabinet as attorney general in 1999 and subsequently became part of the cabinet’s decision-making processes as minister for justice, McDowell underwent something of a green awakening. Fianna F·il, which never had a comfortable relationship with him, was thrilled with its new pal and he developed a close relationship with the Taoiseach.

And while he has continued to criticise Sinn FÈin and challenge the legitimacy of its claims to republicanism – most notably in a series of closely argued and rigorous speeches in the last 18 months – he has been an integral part of the government’s negotiating team. He has granted concessions in return for disarmament and ultimate disbandment of the IRA.

He was willing, for instance, to release the killers of Garda Jerry McCabe. And, during those negotiations, it doesn’t seem to have bothered him unduly that he was negotiati! ng with the men he said were members of the IRA’s army council.

ìOf course we knew we were dealing with guys from or close to the army council,î said one participant. ìIt was on that basis that we were dealing with them. We knew we were dealing with the right guys.î

But McDowell’s recent rhetoric is directly reminiscent of his Sunday Independent phase in the early to mid1990s. It’s almost as if he is playing out his own internal conflict about the peace process on the stage of public debate.

He’s hardly an obvious drama queen, but there’s more than a hint of him displaying an exaggerated sense of his changing convictions and analyses. For a master of rational argument, said those that know him, he was also quite an emotional man. With McDowell, it’s all on a heroic scale.

But the peace process is not a plaything, say some critics in government, concerned that his intemperateness is pushing events to where they assume a momentum of their own. The process ! has delivered enormous benefits to Ireland, both North and South, they argue.

It’s not a stage on which McDowell should play out his internal dramas.

There is little doubt that the events of recent weeks have effected a paradigm shift in the key relations of the peace process, one that has been singularly to the disadvantage of republicans.

But if the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, said the peace processors in government, republicans would be far from the only losers.