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'Harney wanted PD merger with Fine Gael'

FORMER Health Minister Mary Harney wanted to merge the Progressive Democrats (PDs) with Fine Gael, according to the party's ex-leader, Michael McDowell.

In a wide-ranging radio interview, the former Justice Minister also told how Ms Harney reneged on a promise to relinquish power of the party to him soon after it was elected into government in 2002.

Speaking on The Marian Finucane Show on RTE Radio One, Mr McDowell blasted the current 'rag-bag' of opposition parties in Leinster House, saying there is "no effective challenge to the Government".

Mr McDowell said: "I do look at the Dail now and I don't see powerful figures making powerful points.

"When the Ceann Comhairle tells you to sit down and then tells someone from the Technical Group to stand up, you can't co-ordinate a plan of action.

"It must be difficult for Micheal Martin, for instance, to really have a go at the other side when the questioning time is divide between Joe Higgins or whoever else."

He also criticised the media for concentrating on the Jimmy Savile child sex abuse scandal rather than the possible federalisation of the European Union.

"Jimmy Savile is a dirty old man, but the precise extent of it is not as important as whether we go into an integrated or federalised Europe," Mr McDowell said.

The former politician told Ms Finucane how, after the PDs' surprise success in the 2002 election, and while in a coalition government with Fianna Fail, the party's then leader, Ms Harney, wanted to merge with Fine Gael.

"We went from the brink of extinction to eight seats. The question was where the party was to be thereafter," he said.

"I believed the party had a long-term future, Mary Harney doubted that.

"She was actually of the view, and she said this to me in September 2003, that she believed the party's long-term future would be with a merger with Fine Gael."

He added: "I was a bit surprised, to be honest, because I obviously thought on occasions should there be a merger between the PDs and Fine Gael. [But] it took me aback in this sense, if that was her view we'll have to do something about it."

The barrister said he was "perplexed" by Ms Harney's decision to remain as the PD leader as far as 2006 after indicating to Mr McDowell that she planned to hand over the reins of the party earlier.

"She did indicate to me that she didn't propose leading the party into the 2007 election and there would be an election then and she talked to me about who would and would not be the leader of the party in that context."

He added: "I was a bit perplexed as to how much time there would be when she said all those things to me and when the next election was going to happen and who was going to turn the party around in that period of time.

"Then there was all that business about a merger with Fine Gael. So there were a number of issues which we had to deal with."

Mr McDowell also spoke about his son, who was mugged near his home in south Dublin, and his subsequent proposal to introduce legislation on garda leaks after the story had been reported in the media.

"He was mugged and he didn't want to make anything of it. Two senior gardai came to the house and said would he make a statement to them and he was very reluctant to do it for obvious reasons.

"He could see where it could easily end up being. He was given assurances that it would be dealt with privately -- and within 12 hours of giving the statement it was given to a newspaper."

Mr McDowell also alleged that tabloid newspapers were paying gardai 'cash rewards' for stories.

"Some of the tabloid newspapers went ape about it," he said. "There was certain people in certain garda stations who got a direct cash reward for every tip-off they gave.

"I mean, that was covered up and it was called expenses and that's the way the system worked."

Sunday Independent