'We can't blame the politicians for being the ones the people chose'
Aengus Fanning talks to Michael McDowell about our parliamentary system, the future of the Seanad and a possible return to the political fray
MICHAEL McDowell is by no means a popular figure. Is it perhaps that he is too direct, or is seen as too right-wing, or lacks the ability to be all things to all people that seems to be an essential requirement for success with voters?
There is no doubt that McDowell was badly bruised by his defeat in the 2007 general election, and has declared 'a plague on all politics' since then.
But as we enter our third year of deep recession, has the iron entered our soul? Would we welcome some plain speaking, some rigorous and clinical analysis, some strong medicine, as an antidote to the sleeveen parish-pump politicians of whom we have many?
McDowell is dismissive of the calibre of representative that our system throws up and, while he does not rule out a return to politics, he is very careful not to commit himself.
He is a very successful senior counsel but he has also, I believe, a deep streak of old-fashioned patriotism in his make-up -- if he felt that there was truly something useful he could do in the national interest, he would heed the call.
Aengus Fanning: It seems to me that the local economy is in a deep black hole, businesses are closing, jobs are being lost, morale has collapsed and there's not much of a property market, the public sector seems to be in chaos, in a mood of militancy and grievance, notwithstanding the perception that the standard of service provided is getting worse, not better, particularly in view of the Tallaght Hospital debacle. The Taoiseach has become a symbol of hopelessness and inability, and our policy seems to be just wait and hope that there will be some sort of global upturn and the Holy Grail of exports and growth will lead us all into the Promised Land. What do you say to that?
Michael McDowell: The first thing I say is that we are where we are and that we shouldn't be in this place, it's right to acknowledge that there was a massive failure by the bank regulatory system to warn the public and government about the property bubble. There was a massive failure to regulate the banking system and there must be accountability in relation to all of that.
I think people want hope and it has to be grounded on certain realities. We're a member state of the EU, we're a part of the euro, the world is subject to the World Trade Organisation rules, the public sector is not going to lead Ireland back to recovery, it's only going to be recovery in the private sector, both domestic and foreign direct investment into Ireland, and once we grasp those basic realities, what we can do is to make Ireland competitive again. Once we grasp those basic realities, there is a massive hope for the Irish people.
AF: The Ombudsman was critical of the ineffectuality of parliament and its inability to have any influence or control over the executive government, and you're chairing a debate on a similar line. I think that our parliament is not fit for purpose. What do you feel about this type of questioning of the democratic parliamentary system we have arrived at?
MMcD: There are two things, first of all in relation to her [Emily O'Reilly's] specific complaint with which I'd agree, is that in our parliamentary system the executive dominates the Dail to an excessive degree, there's no room for dissent, there's no room for the people having a free vote, there's no consciousness of a political rule other than that of government and I think that she's right on that. In that context, I'd say that people who talk lightly about cutting down the size of the Dail should ask themselves, would the government tend to dominate more or less in a much reduced, in terms of numbers, Dail Eireann? The second thing is that the problem is not so much the architecture of our institutions, the problem is to do with the choices we're making at elections and the choices we're being offered at elections -- we can't blame the Constitution or the system for the identity of the people who we put into Dail Eireann to represent us, those are choices made by the electorate. Are they choosing a government, making decisions on policy, or are they rewarding politicians who act like messenger boys? There are things we can do to make our parliamentary system far more effective, and I don't think the political system should engage in kind of self-mutilation just to get a few cheap votes.
AF: But surely the electorate is what it is, it's like asking us to change human nature.
MMcD: I think the electorate responds to leadership. I look to somebody like Brian Lenihan's strong profile in terms of leadership and the response of the electorate to it, even if they're not rushing to Fianna Fail, there was a very strong feeling I sensed after Christmas that people felt that he was showing leadership and that was the kind of thing Ireland needed.
AF: You're saying that politicians need to show more steel, more iron in their soul, more plain speaking, and the public is in a mood now, a receptive mood, to take and accept this.
MMcD: There is a collective political cowardice in pandering to the electorate as the electorate is interpreted to politicians by the media. I think there's two issues here, There's an absolute desire to please everybody and not to take a firm stance on something and give people a choice. The second thing is the media are leading a sort of anti-political charge which is, I think, unpatriotic of them.
AF: I would disagree there because in my view I see the Dail and the Oireachtas playing party politics and focusing more on the date of the next general election rather than the fact that the economy is now in its third year of recession."
MMcD: I agree that the parliamentary focus doesn't seem to be centred on the fundamental economic crises that we're in and I do agree with you that that is the fault of parliamentarians but it's also the fault of the media. We have to work out [if] politicians are playing the media game or being led so that their agenda is being set from outside. Is the most important issue Tallaght Hospital or the fact that 400,000 people are out of work? If you're to look at our newspapers and RTE, there is a disconnect there as to what are the priorities, and underlying it all is this notion that the media favourite is the blame game. There is an unhealthy relationship between media and politics, they are now more concerned with each other than their common good.
AF: I still feel a lot of what goes in Leinster House is a distraction.
MMcD: I fully agree with you on that and I think you get a far better headline for a bit of bad language in the Dail or whatever than you would for working for a week and coming up with constructive suggestions on the economy.
AF: That's very true, point taken. But what are the political prospects within our party system? Is it a case of whatever way the chips fall at the next election so it will be Labour in government with somebody else?
MMcD: I think the sadness I feel about the demise of the Progressive Democrats is that we are reverting back to what I consider is a system which failed Ireland, which was a three-party system, Civil War parties as they used to be called. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail cannot govern by themselves and have to govern, one or other of them, with another party and the result is that very few politicians achieve power although they will achieve office.
AF: Is that their fault or the fault of the system?
MMcD: I think to some extent it's the fault of our political culture -- we can't blame the politicians for being the people who the people chose. Also, we don't like clear choice. Politics going towards the centre seems to be what succeeds in Ireland, it's the same in England too: capture the middle ground, that seems to be the way to achieve political office. But the problem is that that pursuit of the middle ground frequently deprives people of their distinctive characteristics politically and deprives them of a coherent agenda and a mandate for change, and that's our big problem.
AF: Would you say there's a lobby in the electorate for some straight speaking and the smack of firm authority or leadership, for a little bit of steel in our politicians rather than the conventional criticism of where they're trying to be all things to all people?
MMcD: Yes, I do believe that.
AF: You think the time is right for us, where will it come from?
MMcD: It'll come from a change in the public's appetite and that'll come from a change in the way people vote. That comes back to the point I was making earlier that expectations are created in the media. If the media have an appetite for decisive politics and different politics and politicians are willing to stand for something and say 'I'm not appealing to everybody, I'm appealing to people who agree with policy-driven politics', if the people have an appetite for that kind of politics, then we should have a party political system which reflects that appetite and enables them to put in people who reflect that.
AF: Could I not put it to you, Michael, now, that your country needs you.
MMcD: There's only one way of judging that and that's from the electoral votes and I'm in the position that I stood in a four-seat constituency and the electorate chose Lucinda Creighton, they chose Chris Andrews, they chose John Gormley and they chose Ruairi Quinn rather than me. Whether to use the phrase 'need' is not strictly accurate, the country chooses whom they want and in a democracy their needs, or what they declare to be their needs, might not be what you or I think privately.
AF: Perhaps their perception of their needs might have changed in the meantime.
MMcD: Perhaps so.
AF: Will you put it to the test?
MMcD: What I do believe very strongly is a future in which for the next 10 to 15 years, Ireland will be run by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael in combination with the Labour Party, and that is a deeply disappointing and dismal outlook. I believe more than ever that we need a different choice, we need to be able to put in a government which is not just one of those two combinations. I can see now there is a desire for change and that's perfectly understandable after many, many years of the one party dominating government. On the other hand, there's a good 30 per cent of people who don't want to make the choice with the present political system.
AF: What would you say about the Tallaght Hospital controversy?
MMcD: It's a very serious matter that all the GPs' referral notes were being left unopened and unanswered and it's somebody's responsibility to deal with that. What I'm mystified by is that after three days' public examination of this issue, you and I have no idea what the fundamental problem was. The notion that somebody could go into his or her GP and get a note referring them to an oncologist and that the letter from the GP to the oncologist would sit in a box somewhere due to an administrative collapse is shocking, really.
AF: Do you think the Minister for Health should resign?
MMcD: "No, I don't think that it's her business at all, I don't think that she has anything to do with what happened in Tallaght, I don't think that she was aware of it, but I do believe that somebody who worked there did know about it and didn't do anything and whoever that person is should be made accountable.
AF: Do you think the Tallaght debacle is a metaphor for a malaise in the public health service and perhaps in the public sector generally?
MMcD: When I was an opposition TD, I had a view of the public service which was prejudiced against it, and having worked as Attorney General, as Minister for Justice, I can see the virtues of the public service. I was surrounded by very hard-working people. I don't think you can tar the whole public sector with one brush or set the private sector against the public sector. After all, the whole banking system belonged to the private sector and its regulators were in the public sector so the blame for that catastrophe lies on both sides of the public/private line.
I do believe that there is a lesson of a clear symbolic importance to what's happened in Tallaght; we're concentrating our hospital services in centres of excellence, we're building superb new hospitals with fantastic facilities and yet at the heart of it there is a system of non-administration and of "twill do" attitudes and keep your head down when something's going wrong, don't address the issue, it's better to say nothing than to address it. Those are the characteristics which have brought about, for instance, the failure in the Central Bank Financial Regulatory Authority to monitor the banks -- keep your head down -- and that is an endemic disease in administration in Ireland. The only group of people who can prevent that attitude from dragging us all down are strong determined political chiefs right across the board.
A lot of what goes on in Ireland is determined by people who know that they will never personally become accountable and that whatever they're doing wrong won't be discovered until they're retired. If we do believe in a system where the quality of our public service is determined largely by the quality of the public servants and the leadership they receive, I think Tallaght is a terrible symbol of what's gone wrong.
AF: Could I press you again, Michael, that with your experience, your talent, your ability, your country needs you. Are there any circumstances in which you could see yourself re-entering politics?
MMcD: I believe I'm a citizen of a republic and, as the Constitution says, loyalty to the State is the primary duty of every citizen and I also have a very keen interest in whether our political system works or doesn't work. I'm not so self-absorbed or conceited as to believe what I personally do or don't do is of central importance to Ireland's political future but I'm equally of the view if the deficient political systems and set of choices that are available at the moment can in any sense be improved by anything I do, helping others or a combination of those, I will always do so.
People should know that in the Lisbon Treaty we have given our government the right to make huge changes even at a constitutional level on our behalf in the European context. For instance, they can agree to qualified majority voting and to get rid of a veto in any particular area; they can agree to changing our whole tax system or giving the EU competence on taxation, things which at the moment are a subject of a veto.
It isn't generally known that where Ireland proposes to go along with a decision like that in Europe, both houses of the Oireachtas have to vote for it, and one of the points I am going to make in this debate about the Oireachtas [at the Bar Council last Thursday] is that if you get rid of one house of the Oireachtas, it means that 84 deputies on any particular day can vote to, say, make EU law superior to Irish law in virtually any area of competence under the European Union, such as taxation, criminal law, whatever. Therefore if you're going to actually give a majority in the Dail that power by themselves, no Senate, no president to intervene on behalf of a dissatisfied Senate if they're over-ridden on things, you're giving immense power to a transient majority in the Dail of a kind that we've never had before.
Enda Kenny decided that Fine Gael is going to propose abolition of the Senate, and that's important in two respects, because it wasn't a considered solution. Did he actually think through the implications to get rid of the Senate? Do I want to, let's say, give to a future Fianna Fail leader the right to do all these things on the say-so of a single majority of the Dail?
AF: Would you consider running for the Senate yourself?
MMcD: Well, I'm not talking about that at all, I'm just saying that there are very important constitutional safeguards in having two houses in the Oireachtas. When Enda said that, the rest of the politicians were struck down and said that maybe the people like this, there's an appetite for that kind of stuff. It worries me that there can be the sense of inadequacy among the political class to actually say "hold on a minute, Enda, what do you actually mean by this?".
AF: It seemed to be a populist thing to say and there aren't many politicians with the courage to stand up and say "hold on a minute".
MMcD: Well, why didn't somebody say "hold it, this is a bad idea"? There are a few commentators who, in fairness, did.
AF: My guess is that they're running scared of public opinion.
MMcD: They are scared of public opinion, but the question they have to ask themselves is why was it such a good idea to throw up this idea and why did it receive such an inadequate analysis? I speak as someone who 20-something years ago drafted a new constitution without the Senate because that was PD policy at the time. I no longer believe that it would be wise or beneficial to amend our Constitution to dispense with Seanad Eireann.