IT WOULD not be accurate to describe Michael McDowell's political contribution to contemporary political debate as being that of a lighthouse in a bog - brilliant but useless. He is in fact of considerable use and benefit to two classes in particular, those of unionist and/or racist inclination.
This said, it would not be fair to describe McDowell himself as belonging to either category. Despite his television image, formed by a combination of harsh studio lighting glinting on those Himmler-style glasses and the high forehead that puts one in mind of a malevolent mollusc, McDowell is personally one of the pleasantest of men as a dinner or studio companion.
His influence is something else. He is the very epitome of the anti-republican Dublin 4 elitist. After a debate in the Incorporated Law Society one night, he told me with pride that he was a revisionist. Quelle surprise! Much is made of the fact that McDowell is a grandson of Eoin MacNeill, the co-founder of the Gaelic league (with Douglas Hyde) whom the IRB manipulated into also becoming the founder of the Irish Volunteers.
But it is possibly of far greater significance that he is also the nephew of Michael Tierney, president of UCD from 1947 to 1964 who married a daughter of MacNeill's, Eibhlin. As a boy, McDowell was a regular visitor to University Lodge, the president's campus home.
In some ways Tierney performed a Thirties version of McDowell's contemporary role, that of theoretician of the right.
Tierney was one of the leading intellectuals and guiding spirits of the Blueshirt movement, the nearest Ireland came to a manifestation of fascism in those days. Writing in the Blueshirt paper, the United Irishman, in 1932 Tierney nailed his colours to the mast saying: "The corporate state must come in the end to Ireland as it has elsewhere".
Later, the influence of the UCD president had grown to such an extent that in 1964 a celebrated series of articles in the Guardian by Peter Lennon pointed to the relationship of Tierney with the legendary ultramontaine Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Charles McQuaid, as the outstanding Irish exampleof Christ and Caesar being hand in glove when it came to matters of censorship and thought control.
His own UCD career behind him, the brilliant young barrister McDowell followed publicly in the family footsteps insofar as joining Fine Gael was concerned, though which family icons he privately worshipped, MacNeill's or Tierney's, must necessarily be a matter of speculation. His printed pronouncements are seemingly clear enough. As the columns of the Sunday Independent reveal, scarcely a week passes but he is either cannonading against Sinn Fein or in favour of restricting immigration.
It would appear to be safe to assume, from the amount of time he devotes to attacking republicans, that the North is one of his principal preoccupations. But is it really? If so, one would imagine that the subject would figure in large lettering in his 2002 mission statement to his proposed electorate, entitled "Where I'm coming from, the real agenda for Ireland".
However, curiously for a former PD spokesman on the North, if one consults his website, one finds that neither under "biography" nor "policies" did the North figure in that agenda. The six counties were not mentioned.
What did figure was "Radical tax reform, pro-enterprise policies, competition and de-regulation".
During the campaign, McDowell was so revolted by the spectacle of our revered Taoiseach attempting to build the ill-starred Bertie Bowl that he likened him to the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. However, election secured, Michael found it possible to join "Ceausescu" in Cabinet.
Could it also be that McDowell - who, pre-election, listed his preoccupations and goals as being centred on the economy, the environment, and so forth, without ever mentioning Northern Ireland - has now exchanged "Ceausescu" Ahern for Gerry Adams in a bid to attract some of those Fine Gael voters which the opinion polls show are deserting the boys in blue?
We know he is not particularly concerned with attracting those other boys in blue, the Gardai, because after a garda apparently leaked details of an attack on his son Hugh to a tabloid, he brought in legislation threatening any further garda telltales to the media with heavy fines and imprisonment.
Uncle Michael would no doubt have approved of this display of authority and information curtailment. Mind you, it would not appear to be the most politic tactic for a minister committed to bringing in other more substantive reforms in the Gardai, along the lines of what is now in force in the Northern PSNI (or the Continuity RUC, as some nationalist wag has dubbed that worthy corps).
IN SHORT, therefore, the answer presumably is: yes, McDowell is angling for Fine Gael support; but yes also, McDowell has all the visceral detestation of republicanism and Gerry Adams which his revered uncle once had for de Valera and Fianna Fail - a detestation which he muted having become president of UCD and being forced to deal with "Ceausescu's" predecessor.
In this paper (July 7, 1994) McDowell wrote that Adams was a mediocrity, lacking depth, who was "not in the business of leading the Provos out of violence". A month later, the shallow mediocrity had performed the delicate, and dangerous, feat of leading the Provisional IRA into a ceasefire.
One of McDowell's complaints at the time was that the Sinn Fein leader did not understand the unionists "as people, only as the enemy". On behalf of the Progressive Democrats he issued a statement saying that the territorial claims of articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution were "monstrous propositions" by any political or historical yardstick, and called on the Southern electorate to understand the importance for unionists of our retention of articles 2 and 3. He said that it was equivalent to a notional provision in British statute law denying the existence of our State and commanding the allegiance of all Irish people as subjects of the Queen.
He urged the people of the Republic to accept that the precondition for the establishment of Irish unity was "the freely given consent of a majority in both parts of the island".
The Republic duly gave this consent four years later as a result of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998; and we, by referendum, dropped the contentious articles 2 and 3, (a matter of considerable heartache for many people) and replaced them with a noble vision of what constituted Irishness: any person born on the island of Ireland was henceforth entitled to call themselves Irish.
This was a fitting gesture for the people of the Republic to make in terms of Eoin MacNeill's own call for recognition of the contribution of Ulster Protestantism in his famous address at the setting up of the Irish Volunteers.
It was also an inclusive and appropriate gesture by an emigrant nation. Let us remember that today's Irish diaspora is so large that perhaps 70 million people on the planet are entitled to style themselves Irish. This circumstance owes its origins to dispossession, famine, dislocation, but also to the millions of people in other lands who did not hang signs in their windows saying "no dogs, blacks, or Irish", but who took them in, in the face of prejudice and economic competition.
The many thousands of Irish who today find welcome in Spanish holiday resorts are probably unaware that they are treading in the footsteps of the Irish who, four centuries ago, enjoyed the incredible boon of having Spanish citizenship automatically conferred upon them, by virtue of their Irish birth, when they were being hunted out of their own country.
The remittances of the tens of thousands of Irish who left this country for England in the Fifties, and whose twilight lives tinged by loneliness, alcoholism and neglect, are now flickering out, as Prime Time reminded us two weeks ago, helped to sustain what eventually became the Celtic Tiger. Their sad enforced departures were the safety valve which prevented revolution in this country.
It is therefore quite monstrous, to borrow the PD epithet, that Michael McDowell should now be contemplating the abandonment of the vision embodied in the replacement wording of articles 2 and 3 for a narrower, racially motivated concept of Irish citizenship; one which is far more onerous in its import for those it is directed against than the original articles 2 and 3 ever were for the unionists.
To speak plainly: If this society is to repel black Africans, what the hell chance does it think it has of attracting Black Protestants? If, as he argued in this paper, McDowell's motivation is concern at the strain being placed on our maternity hospitals by pregnant non-nationals he should seek to have our health services improved, not worsen our Constitution. God be with the days when we were urged to support black babies!
McDowell's racial approach apart, his anti-Sinn Fein/IRA rhetoric, carries the demerit that while it may be directed at Fine Gael fence-sitters, it is listened to and manipulated in the North, and possibly elsewhere.
Here in Ireland both Paisleys, senior and junior, are on record as having quoted McDowell's utterances approvingly as justification for defying McDowell's own government by their refusal to share power with the largest nationalist party in the six counties, thus jeopardizing the peace process.
And abroad, in Columbia for instance, what is a judge, weighing up the evidence before coming to an adjudication on sentencing in the case of the Columbia Three, to make of the fact that the Irish Justice minister has repeatedly said that republicans are mixed up in "narco-terrorism".
Would the rules of contempt of court allow such comments to be made if the case were being tried in Dublin? What would Michael McDowell himself have made of similar comments had they been made by another lawyer in 1984 while he was partof the team defending Billy Kelly, on charges arisingout of the Don Tidey kidnapping?
Obviously since Sinn Fein have chosen to contest elections in the Republic, the party must accept a degree of hostility from its opponents, particularly in the run-up to an election.
However, in using the rhetoric and the tactics that he has chosen to combat his political opponents in the Republic, McDowell, out of a combination of ancestral voices and a desire to woo Fine Gael support, is hurting the peace process and sailing perilously close to the intellectual territories of figures like the anti-emigrant Joerg Haider of Austria and the unionist Ian Paisley of Belfast.
This is not a course on which an Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law should be embarked.