Bad cop McDowell

  • 25 February 2005
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"The moment of victory is often the moment of greatest peril. In the heat of victory, arrogance and overconfidence can push you past the goal you had aimed for... Do not allow success to go to your head. There is no substitute for strategy and careful planning. Set a goal, and when you reach it, stop. (The 48 Laws of Power; Robert Greene/Joost Elffers)

The Garda rumbling of a huge money laundering operation in Cork, linked to the IRA, must have been a sweet moment for the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell. The broad grin on his face as he arrived at Garda headquarters in Dublin, to congratulate the top brass on the seizure of nearly four million euro in cash had a triumphant look of: "I told you so" about it.

And who could begrudge the Minister his moment of glory? Following the collapse of the talks process in early December and the Belfast bank robbery it was McDowell, more than any other politician, who berated Sinn Féin and the IRA for involvement in major criminality; exposed that organisation's self-delusion and fantasy world of being the legitimate government of Ireland, (immune to the criminal law on either side of the border) and challenged it to cut its ties to criminality and paramilitary activity.

Who will forget the Minister's appearance on RTÉ's Questions & Answers when he stumped Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin by asking him if he thought the murder of Jean McConville was a crime. The incident triggered an onslaught of similar questioning by media of other Sinn Féin figures for weeks afterwards. At times, McDowell was like a man obsessed, so great was his zeal to reclaim the mantle of republicanism from what he now calls the "provisional" movement.

But McDowell has a self-destructive flip-side too. On the one hand he is a class act, articulate and brave: on the other, he lacks the essential judgement and self-control to know to quit when ahead. Indeed, the Justice Minister could do well to heed the 47th Law of Power, which warns that while nothing is more intoxicating than victory, nothing is more dangerous, either.

When Gardaí uncovered the money laundering operation in Cork, McDowell was understandably elated. However, he may have allowed the momentary thrill of vindication to influence his next move.

He went on a Sunday morning radio chat show and did something he said he would not do because it would be inappropriate and unhelpful to the Peace Process: he named three leading Sinn Féin figures as members of the IRA Army Council.

The move sparked a predictable storm of denials and counterattacks from Sinn Féin and served only to divert attention from the key issue of IRA criminality.

When Bertie Ahern shied away from endorsing his minister's assertions, speculation raged about the Government's failure to speak with one voice.

The burning question is why McDowell named the Sinn Féin leaders when, only a few weeks earlier, he had declined to do so, once when asked by journalists and twice when asked by the Fine Gael leader in the Dáil.

On 11 February, speaking to journalists on the steps of Government buildings, the Minister repeatedly declined to name the Sinn Féin leaders.

"It's matter of judgement as to whether that would be helpful towards getting things back on the rails again or not," he said. "And just as the International Monitoring Commission, which is an independent international body of experts, has reserved that decision, so do I and so does the Irish Government".

On Wednesday, Enda Kenny told the Dáil he recently asked McDowell the same question on two occasions and was told it would not be appropriate to answer the question.

So how come it was suddenly "appropriate" and "helpful" for McDowell to name the Sinn Féin leaders on 20 February, when it wasn't "appropriate" and "helpful" to do so on 11 February?

What had changed in nine days? Or did McDowell just shoot his mouth off in the excitement of the moment? If he did, Bertie Ahern isn't saying. By the end of the week the Taoiseach had rallied to his minister's side, rejecting all talk of a split. In a way, McDowell's "Rottweiler performance" on this issue could well suit Bertie Ahern. It allows him play "good cop" to McDowell's "bad cop" while all the time herding Sinn Féin towards decision time on the IRA.

Ursula Halligan is TV3's Political Editor and Presenter of The Political Party, TV3, 5pm, Sundays