Thursday, May 31, 2007

Michael, We Hardly Knew Ya!

We live in a strange time when an avuncular, by all accounts old-school politician, a mumbler with questionable educational and ethical background is held out to be the type of politician to aspire towards. Our political climate is one where it is a dangerous move to be associated more with policy than personality. I don’t remember the context, but I do remember during his tenure, whomever he was reprimanding, Michael McDowell criticized ideology. Other than misusing the word ‘ideology’, this is somewhat ironic as in a political system which has never been structured around the traditional political divides, McDowell and the PDs could most readily be placed on the political spectrum. Unfortunately for McDowell, as he took on the mantle of the PD leader, he became the face and a symbol of policies and an attitude which earned widespread negative commentary.

McDowell for me always represented a contrast. Of the three tenets of the title of his Department, the role he adopted most readily was Law Reform. An often unremarked upon role in general conversation, in reforming the private security industry, the advertisement of alcohol and attempting to update criminal justice provisions there at the very least has been a proactive approach to reform and this is to be commended in our most unproductive of Dails. Look deeper though and the meat of the provisions undermine the other roles of his Department - Justice and Equality. Propose an amendment to our Constitution that seeks to tackle ‘citizenship tourism’, that leaves children born to non-nationals without the protection of being a citizen, calling their entitlement to the protections offered by the State into question. Legislate to have our emails, texts and telephone records stored by telecommunication companies and accessible by the Gardai. Attempt to rush through a fundamental overhaul of the criminal justice system in the dying weeks of the Dail with little debate. Respond to the pressures of an influx of asylum seekers by deporting individuals while their children were still at school. Propose closing a Tribunal that would be a few months later hearing of the receipt of payments by your partner in government. This is the policy, then of course there are the tactics, press leaks, throw away insults, accusations thrown at political rivals in seeming panicked efforts to deflate their popularity and all the time any sense of personality comes across as glib and smug. The man doesn’t skimp on providing feeding ground for those who choose to pick over his handy work. So what can we determine about the man - determined to achieve a programme in government at any cost, singularly determined, motivated by ideals stemming from his extensive experience in policy and law or a political drive to succeed or a buffoon no more capable than the least competent backbenchers, with an academic sheen?

One conclusion I comfortably arrive at is that the man is fearless to a point. His will be the legacy of a man who did not have a steam roller of party behind him. Tom Parlon, commenting on McDowell’s resignation, said he was not a man to make friends easily and indeed the bulk of remarks from party colleagues made reference to his ability as a legislator, an orator and a member of Cabinet. Neither had he resounding support from his partners in government, his ‘cafĂ©-bar’ initiative rejected by FF back-benchers, he in turn showed his own and the PDs go-alone attitude, being disciplined enough to call out the Taoiseach on the facts of his receipt of payments in the lead up to the election. What I’m building towards is the proposition that McDowell is a brave politician, taking steps, making statements, proposing policy changes a world away from the collective responsibility cushioned members of FF, who are each personalities first and policy makers second. Indeed that very reversal of roles is probably the reason McDowell has been so inconsistent in maintaining the support of his constituents.

The title of my post is apt, we knew little of this man, and what was presented was too little the unknown entity and what came through for me was decidedly negative.

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