Tuesday 23 May 2017

Politics has lost a man of guts and fierce integrity

Tanaiste Michael McDowell promised his family five years ago that, if he lost his seat again, he would bow out of public life rather than put them through the ordeal of another election to win it back

FROM A less serious man, a sentence such as "I love my country and am ambitious about it" would have sounded crass, corny and melodramatic.

Yet no-one doubted the authenticity of the profound emotion that infused the plain language of those eight words delivered by Michael McDowell on Friday night.

It took guts and a very old-fashioned sense of duty to bring his three sons and wife to watch him publicly take full responsibility for his failure as the leader of the PDs and the loss of his seat in the Dail.

There was something of Maximus the gladiator's 'strength and honour' about Michael McDowell the Irish patriot in the crowded RDS. He ignored a jeering mob and chose the most public forum to declare that his life as a public representative was over.

"It will be for others to decide the course of the party from now on, but I want to say this with my whole heart and my whole soul: I love Ireland and I am deeply grateful to the Irish people for the opportunity they have given me to serve them," he said.

He could have done "many things differently" and he accepted responsibility for things that went wrong.

For all his many faults, McDowell has more compensating qualities. And few things in his 20-something years as a public representative became him like the great dignity he summoned up in leaving it.

Still, Tom Parlon, the president of the PDs, and the deputy leader, Liz O'Donnell, seemed miffed that McDowell had quit the leadership of the party while the electoral fate of some of the party's candidates was still undecided.

Yesterday he had no doubts that his immediate public statement was the right thing to do. "They didn't have that decision to make," said McDowell.

On Saturday, the chairman of the party asked Mary Harney to take over the leadership but just two TDs for the PDs makes it impossible to justify the enormous cost of keeping a full-time salaried staff and a city-centre headquarters.

Public funding for the party will stop and the future of the PDs is uncertain. Some party members will criticise McDowell for leaving the shrunken party in crisis, but he has done them much service over the 22 years since he helped to found the PDs.

His decision to quit was made some years ago, with his wife, Niamh Brennan.

In six elections since 1987, McDowell has won his seat in Dublin South-East three times and lost it three times. After he lost in 1997, he was appointed Attorney General, but, on regaining the seat in 2002, he made a promise to his family that if he lost the seat again he would quit.

On Friday evening when it was clear he would lose, McDowell gathered his family and made his way to the RDS to make public his private promise.

Just turned 56, he will be Tanaiste and Minister for Justice until June 14 and then slip below the surface of public life to decide his future. His statement only ruled out serving as a public representative, so he is still free to take up a public appointment.

Most of his contemporaries believe he would make a fine judge in the superior courts and it is hard to see why any government headed by Bertie Ahern would not appoint him to the bench - if that is what McDowell wants.

POLITICS will be a poorer place without McDowell. The loss of his biting wit, keen intelligence and frenetic energy will be soon apparent when the 30th Dail finally settles in.

His low-tax mantra, vilified 20 years ago as right-wing dogma, is now the official policy of the Labour Party.

And after Fianna Fail, the Progressive Democrats have been, by far, the most successful political party in the state over the past generation.

McDowell's reforms of the prison service, the Garda and immigration policy are a monument to his five years as Minister for Justice.

His retiring from gladiatorial politics will allow him more time with his family and friends.

And, above all, Michael McDowell is a most amusing companion - a generous and wise friend.

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