The black and white world of Michael McDowell

Posted By: March 29, 2013

Irish Independent. Tuesday, February 8, 2005

He’s the poster boy for middle-class values and the bane of Sinn Fein; he’s arrogant, outspoken and quite possibly the most ambitious politician in Ireland. Sam Smyth profiles the ‘very, very clever’ Minister for Justice.

The Provos blame him for the latest crash on the road to peace while others credit Michael McDowell with bringing plain-speaking logic back to the process. Anywhere Sinn Feiners gather the Minister for Justice is feared and loathed. Yet he’s the much-admired poll-topper in his well-heeled Dublin constituency.

For two months now he’s been demanding that the Provos end their criminality, and that ultimatum prompted the IRA’s disengagement from the peace process on Wednesday. McDowell’s unwavering stance would surely have been in the minds of the authors of the IRA’s updated threat to the government on Thursday evening.

Yet every time they identify McDowell as the enemy, the Provos make new friends for the tough-talking minister. Silencing Shinner-speak’s “constructive ambiguity” and addressing the peace process logically in plain language has shifted middle-of-the-road public opinion significantly away from the Adams-McGuinness axis.

This totem of middle-class values, a saint in the latter day church of liberal intellectuals would also love to be Taoiseach, although that is as unlikely as him becoming an astronaut or a train driver. But his unbridled ambition in tandem with a keen intellect and unquestioned competence has delivered him to one of the senior offices of government.

Everyone who knows him – and many of those who don’t – has a definite opinion on Michael McDowell, including his colleagues in the Progressive Democrats where he is party president.

Others are wondering if Michael McDowell’s swashbuckling presidential style can be morphed into a leadership role in the PDs.

When asked if he would like to be leader of the PDs, McDowell is characteristically blunt: “There is no vacancy.”

Mary Harney says she has no intention of standing down. She means what she says; so does he.

Speculation that Mary Harney might consider resigning as party leader was quashed when she accepted the ultimate political poisoned chalice and signed up as Minister for Health. There have been tensions between them in the past but the party’s leader and the president now have a good working relationship.

It is difficult to see any circumstances where McDowell would challenge Harney for the leadership. However, one member of the parliamentary party said that if Mary Harney was run over by the metaphorical bus, McDowell is her obvious successor.

He is not universally loved by his party colleagues or other members of the government, although even those who dislike him respect Michael McDowell. And respect is a more durable currency in politics than affection.

“The parliamentary party is in awe of him when he addresses them,” said one of them. “He is very, very clever and they listen very carefully when he has something to say.” However, the confidence about his opinions and his certainty about everything else can irritate other colleagues: “Michael is never wrong. He just changes his mind to accommodate new information,” said one of his party colleagues with a tincture of sarcasm.

Liz O’Donnell was his principal rival, although Tom Parlon also thinks he has the right stuff to be leader of the PDs. However, according to one party colleague, Liz O’Donnell made two mistakes that have seriously impeded her chances in a future leadership contest: she declined a place in Government after the election in 2002 and made a bad judgement by criticising Michael McDowell’s uncompromising stand against the Sinn Fein last year.

Tom Parlon is a competent minister of state and a shrewd politician but his rural ambience is not the home of urbane PDism. He has made no secret of his goal but Tom Parlon’s ambition is not shared by many of his colleagues, in or out of the parliamentary party.

McDowell, a founder of the party 19 years ago with Des O’Malley and Mary Harney, is very proud that the PDs punch way above their weight. They have had a much greater influence on public policies – from the lower taxes that propelled the prosperity of the ongoing economic boom to the Good Friday Agreement – than the much larger Fine Gael and Labour parties.

Old Fine Gaelers believe he is their lost leader and many of them canvassed for him against their own candidate in the general election when he topped the poll in June 2002. And his blue blood credentials provoke a curious blend of admiration, envy and contempt from the Fine Gael party across the floor of the Dail.

Yet McDowell’s great strength is also his Achilles heel. A politician driven by principle and moral certainty is susceptible to charges of arrogance. And being right most of the time is not an endearing quality to others make occasional mistakes.

He has a good relationship with the Taoiseach, the ultimate pragmatist whose consummate wheeling and dealing skills are the opposite of the principled advocacy espoused by McDowell. “Everything in Michael’s world is absolute, black and white, right or wrong and anyone who disagrees with him or challenges his view is seen as an enemy,” said one veteran McDowell-watcher.

Yet the Minister for Justice can play rough when the occasion demands it. He gave as good as he got in his ongoing battle with the Star, the tabloid where he is known as the “Mad Mullah”. He described their criticism of him as “methane from the pond life of Irish journalism” thus extending the shelf-life of their row.

McDowell has impressed colleagues with his management of the prison service and his plans to reform the Gardai will be easier to judge when the current investigations into the force have all been completed.

Fianna Failers who saw him seize the anti-Sinn Fein initiative from Fine Gael after Enda Kenny raised the possible release of Garda Jerry McCabe’s killers, say they do not think McDowell would have been so prominent if Brian Cowen was still Minister for Foreign Affairs. Yet even FFers give McDowell’s hard line on Sinn Fein some of the credit for the government parties’ recovery in the opinion polls after their disastrous results in the local and European elections.

The Labour Party see him as a class enemy but like him because they know that if the circumstances changed, McDowell could be just as coruscating and offensive to Fianna Fail as he is to them.

However, like the government he serves in, McDowell’s own performance as a minister has been weakened by a weak opposition. Joe Costello, the Labour spokesman on Justice, has made no impact and Fine Gael’s Jim O’Keeffe has not had enough time to fix McDowell in the crosshairs of his parliamentary attack.

Oratorical skills honed in the Four Courts have made McDowell one of the handful of speakers worth listening to in the Dail and he clearly enjoys the cut and thrust of the chamber. And many of his adversaries are surprised to find McDowell good company in the bar and helpful in his office.

Sinn Fein reserve a special place in their hate parade for him but even his most trenchant opponents believe the Dail and Irish public life in gerneral would be much poorer without Michael McDowell.