The ego has landed
In an exclusive extract from his book Showtime or Substance, Noel Whelan writes about Michael McDowell and the PDs.
At the end of July 2005, Dublin's 13th Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which had chosen the theme of ‘Family Values', attracted pages of coverage in the national newspapers and even featured on the main evening news bulletins. This was not because of any particular film in its programme, but because the organisers invited the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell, to perform the official opening. This invitation caused great controversy within the gay community, where McDowell has proved as divisive a figure as he is everywhere else. However, asking him to launch the festival was a stroke of genius. A festival which usually attracts about 5,000 filmgoers couldn't pay for the amount of publicity that McDowell attracts for free.
The most significant political fact about Michael McDowell is that he is a media magnet. As a result, his personality and media profile had already come to define the electorate's perception of and attitude to the Progressive Democrats, even before he became party leader in September 2006. One of the reasons why he attracts so much attention is that few ministers have responsibility for a department as wide in its scope as that over which he currently presides. Not only does it cover the usual home affairs territories of crime, the courts, prisons and policing, but, in Ireland, the same department also encompasses matters as diverse as equality programmes and civil law reform. In recent years, immigration, which in most other European countries has a department of its own, has added considerably to the administrative and policy responsibilities of this department and its minister.
Home affairs co-operation at European and international level is also increasing, and the department plays an important role in Northern Ireland policy, making it inevitable that any Minister for Justice will get plenty of media coverage. However, even allowing for all those factors, the range and extent of publicity, both positive and negative, given to McDowell over the last five years have been out of all proportion to the size of his departmental brief and of his party.
Editors have decided that merely putting McDowell's face on the front of any publication will ensure an increase in circulation. Some journalists, columnists and broadcast media producers have become obsessed with him. It is difficult to recall any other politician in recent times whose utterances at fringe conferences, in college magazine interviews or at summer schools have been reported so extensively in the subsequent day's newspapers, or even reprinted verbatim the following weekend. Few personalities or public figures rouse such passion so often across such a wide range of media. Some clever interest groups, whether they operate within McDowell's area of responsibility or not, have realised that a press release which includes an attack on McDowell by name is more likely to get coverage. Many opposition politicians have successfully adopted the same approach.
There is a large element of mutual obsession about the relationship between McDowell and the media, but some of the coverage has crossed over to the personal. McDowell also attracts attention because what he has to say is often interesting and is usually said well. In an era when politics can be technical and dull and when many politicians play it safe, he provokes passions on all sides. Many of those who disagree with what he says admire the fact that he is not afraid to say it, although, as his outburst against Richard Bruton in a row over garda numbers in Dublin showed, he sometimes goes too far.
Some, especially on the Fianna Fáil back benches, resent the attention that McDowell attracts. They become frustrated because disproportionate coverage of McDowell distorts the government's overall image. While the Progressive Democrats in government need only be sensitive to their own niche audience, Fianna Fáil has to be conscious of the need to sustain a wider appeal. On the other hand, there are times when it appears to suit Bertie Ahern and many other ministers to have McDowell dominate coverage and act as a lightning rod for criticism and controversy.
During the 2002 general election, the Progressive Democrats ran a very successful campaign. They exploited voter apprehension at the prospect of a Fianna Fáil overall majority – and played to it. The resultant publicity and the decline in the Fine Gael vote meant that the Progressive Democrats managed to double their Dáil representation from four to eight. The party's electoral performance since then, however, has not been impressive. The 2004 local elections were disappointing for them. In the 1999 local elections their seats on county and city councils fell from 37 to 25. In 2004 the party lost six more council seats, although their 2002 general election performance had led to expectations that they would do better.
In the European elections of 1999 and 2004 the Progressive Democrats' performance was consistent – they got no votes. This arose from their curious decision not to run any candidates for the European Parliament in either year. By not contesting these elections (which in 2004 attracted more attention than at any time previously), they rendered themselves irrelevant. While the other parties spent the first half of 2004 holding selection conventions or being energised by nomination contests, the Progressive Democrats had no equivalent activity. This, coupled with the resurgence of Fine Gael, contributed to the Progressive Democrats' bad result in the local elections. Party strategists argued at the time that by not running for the European Parliament, they were able to concentrate organisational resources on the local election campaign. However, if that was really the reason, then the Progressive Democrats' organisational resources must be seriously depleted. The other two parties of comparable size, the Green Party and Sinn Féin, each ran more local election candidates than the Progressive Democrats and also fielded candidates in all four European constituencies.
The Progressive Democrats' stormiest period since the last general election was the summer of 2006. In June, internal tensions about the leadership of the party reached boiling point. Many of the party's leading figures, including, it appears, Michael McDowell, and some (if not all) of the party's trustees believed that the then leader, Mary Harney, had earlier given them an indication that she would step down that spring. However, Harney, apparently prevailed upon by some of the party's other Oireachtas members, decided to stay on as party leader at least until after the general election. There was a particularly turbulent parliamentary party meeting on 20 June where, despite criticisms from McDowell, the overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party rallied behind Harney in her decision to stay on. The details of the row were leaked a few days later to Stephen Collins, the political correspondent of The Irish Times. When their squabble became public, the Progressive Democrats closed ranks, not least because news of further internal tensions could have caused serious damage to the party. The incident left a lingering impression that McDowell had made a premature and ill-judged attempt to gain the party leadership.
In September Mary Harney stunned everyone by announcing that she was resigning the leadership after all. Having reflected on the matter during an unusually long Italian holiday, she had concluded that while she wanted to continue at the Department of Health and Children (if the leader chose to leave her there) and to contest her seat in Dublin South-West again, the time was right for someone else to lead the Progressive Democrats and take up the position of Tánaiste. She informed a shocked parliamentary party on Thursday, 7 September, following this up with a 5pm press conference. By the following Monday lunchtime, Michael McDowell had been unanimously elected as the new party leader.
The Progressive Democrats have a complex electoral college system to select their leader. Candidates for leadership must be nominated by a TD or senator. If a vote is required, it is conducted in three separate electoral colleges, made up of the parliamentary party; the national executive and other public representatives; and the general party membership, respectively. It quickly emerged that McDowell had overwhelming support in all three sectors. The other possible contenders were Liz O'Donnell and Tom Parlon. However, on the Sunday, McDowell offered the deputy leadership to Liz O'Donnell and the position of party president to Parlon if he won. This meant that at a press conference the following day the party was able to present a unified front. Coming through a leadership change without internal upheaval was no mean achievement.
The relatively smooth transition to McDowell's leadership contrasted sharply with the party's experience in 1993 when the resignation of Harney's predecessor, Des O'Malley, precipitated deep internal tensions and ultimately led to the departure of TDs Pat Cox and Martin Cullen. At his first press conference as leader, McDowell promised a policy-led transformation of the party's fortunes. He made a clear play for the support of potential Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil voters who might be nervous about the possibility of Labour or Green Party involvement in a future government. However, his leadership got no honeymoon. Within two weeks McDowell was dealing with the fall-out of the revelations about payments made to Bertie Ahern when he was Minister for Finance in the 1990s. Over a three-week period in late September and early October 2006, there was considerable pressure on the new Tánaiste both from within his own party and from elements of the media to break up the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat government.
There were times when it seemed that this might actually happen. However, McDowell was particularly supportive of Ahern at significant moments during the crisis, emphasising that he did not doubt the Taoiseach's honesty or integrity, but he also asked for greater accountability and an apology from Ahern for accepting the money.The Progressive Democrats' decision on whether or not to quit the government was also shaped by the numerical realities of the current Dáil, which meant that, if they needed to, Fianna Fáil could have stayed in government with the support of those independent deputies well disposed to Bertie Ahern. As many commentators put it at the time, the Progressive Democrats were stuck between a rock and a hard place.
However, the decision to stay in government proved the wiser course. By the third weekend of the controversy, the public had lost interest. The results of a subsequent Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion poll confirmed that although two-thirds of the voters believed Ahern had been wrong to accept both the money collected by friends in Dublin and that given to him by businessmen in Manchester, most did not want him removed as Taoiseach. Asked in the same poll whether McDowell had taken the right stance in not quitting the government, a comfortable majority said he was right. A poll the same weekend in the Sunday Tribune showed similar levels of public agreement that the government should continue, at least until the election.
On the day he was elected leader, Michael McDowell also announced that he intended to double the party's seats in the next election and emphasised that the party was determined to ensure that its current 13 parliamentary party members would be elected to the Dáil in 2007. Eight are already TDs, while the other five are senators nominated by the Taoiseach – four as part of the coalition agreement in 2002 and the fifth being Michael Brennan, a former Fianna Fáil councillor in Limerick West, who defected to the Progressive Democrats following a row with Fianna Fáil about the non-selection of his wife for the 2004 local election. The struggle facing the Progressive Democrats in the forthcoming election is an uphill one. Since 2002, the party's vote share in opinion polls has varied between 3 and 5 per cent, but because they are a small party, national opinion poll rates are not a useful indicator of the Progressive Democrats's likely strength in the next Dáil. Instead, it is again necessary to consider the party's prospects for seats in specific constituencies.
During media coverage following Harney's resignation and before McDowell became the new leader, the PD trustee Paul Mackay told one interviewer that the party's private polling had revealed that six of their eight Dáil seats are vulnerable. It is arguable that it would be reckless for the party to believe that any seat is safe. Four of the eight Progressive Democrat TDs will have served only one term when they go into the next election. This is a notoriously precarious point in Dáil careers. The bulwark of established incumbency is not yet available to them and the novelty of being a first-timer has abated.
It is significant that the four seat gains that the PDs made in 2002 were ultimately at the expense of Fine Gael. Dublin South-East, Dún Laoghaire, Laois-Offaly and Longford were all particularly bad areas for Fine Gael in a very bad election. All four of these constituencies are now near the top of Fine Gael's list of targeted gains, as is Liz O'Donnell's seat in Dublin South. In those circumstances, the fact that Fine Gael's vote share appears to have risen in the opinion polls since the 2002 election is particularly worrying for the Progressive Democrats. Mary Harney's is the safest of the party's seats. She is helped by the fact that her Dublin Mid-West constituency has an additional seat this time and by the more intense competition being in the Lucan half of her constituency, rather than in her Clondalkin base. Michael McDowell himself should also be safe in Dublin South-East. His liberal economic outlook, strong anti-Sinn Féin stance and even the fact that he is now Tánaiste are among the features which make him attractive to this most settled of Dublin's middle-class areas. He is likely to be comfortably reelected.
There have been rumours of constituency polls in the summer of 2006 showing him to be weak, but even if they are to be believed, these polls would have been taken in the aftermath of the statutory rape controversy and the vicious internal row over the party leadership, both events that hurt McDowell politically – more unfairly in the latter instance than in the former.
Liz O'Donnell raised a few eyebrows when she told a radio interviewer that her Dublin South seat was not one of the six seats revealed as vulnerable by the party's private polls. She was relatively comfortably elected in 2002, but had a very close call in 1997. Given the fact that Fine Gael's ticket this time out includes a returning Alan Shatter, that the Green Party's Eamon Ryan is likely to maintain if not increase his vote and that Labour is likely to put a lot of effort into regaining a seat here, O'Donnell cannot take anything for granted. Dublin South's propensity to change in accordance with national trends means that, ironically, O'Donnell's prospects may well depend on McDowell's performance as leader. In Dún Laoghaire, Fiona O'Malley will have a struggle.
In the current Dáil, Fine Gael has no seat in this once blue bastion but has targeted it for two gains, though this may be over-ambitious. Labour is also seeking to take a seat here, so unless Barry Andrews is weaker than local polling suggests, O'Malley is likely to be the casualty if any of these gains materialise for the Rainbow parties. Her less colourful cousin, Tim O'Malley, who sits in her father's old seat in Limerick East, has the advantage of a deeper political base and has weaker Fine Gael contenders for his seat, and therefore should be safer. Noel Grealish was the lucky beneficiary of a three-candidate strategy in Galway West in 2002, but could win his seat more easily this time out. He is a hard constituency worker and, like Bobby Molloy before him, is more in the mode of a traditional Fianna Fáil grassroots politician than his more liberal and highprofile south Dublin colleagues. Divisions over candidate strategy in both Fianna Fáil and Labour (one of whose former councillors will run as an independent), coupled with confusion about the retirement of the Fine Gael incumbent Pádraic McCormack, are also factors likely to operate in Grealish's favour.
The midlands will be trickier for the Progressive Democrats. The elevation of Tom Parlon to the position of party president, with its associated nationwide organisational responsibilities, will cut little electoral ice in Laois-Offaly, where all the other parties are suggesting that Parlon's base has weakened considerably. The Cowen-imposed discipline of the Fianna Fáil machine in this five-seater means that the probable return of Fine Gael's Charlie Flanagan to the Dáil is likely to be at Parlon's expense.
Getting re-elected was always going to be difficult for Mae Sexton and she now has to contend with the fact that her Longford base, which was with Roscommon in 2002, has now been redrawn and joins Westmeath as a four-seater for 2007. Tensions between the Cassidy and O'Rourke Fianna Fáil camps in Westmeath, the absence of any base for the Progressive Democrats in that county and a stronger Fine Gael challenger in Longford itself mean that, as matters stand, Sexton is likely to be squeezed out.
As well as defending the seats they have, the Progressive Democrats hope to make gains. In April 2006 Colm O'Gorman, the campaigner for victims of child sexual abuse, announced that he was joining the party and would run in his native Wexford in 2007. A TG4 poll in November 2006, however, put O'Gorman's vote share at just 1 per cent in the constituency.The party also has high hopes for Tom Morrissey, who has moved to Dublin North, especially since neither of the two sitting Fianna Fáil TDs is recontesting in that constituency. However, Morrissey is a relative unknown in most of this constituency. Senator Michael Brennan had a strong but unsuccessful run as an independent Fianna Fáil candidate in Limerick West in 1997 but did notcontest the 2002 election. As a Progressive Democrat candidate he is also unlikely to win a seat this time out, although his candidature may again damage Fianna Fáil and could allow Fine Gael to win two of this constituency's three seats. The party's senators, John Dardis and Kate Walsh, are likely to run in Kildare South and Kildare North respectively, and, notwithstanding the fact that Kildare North will have an additional seat in the next election, the party is unlikely to pick up a seat in this county. Another of the party's senators, John Minihan, will contest the election in Cork South Central, but the party's prospects of a gain there are slim.
An ongoing weakness for the Progressive Democrats is that, with a few rare exceptions, the party holds no local authority seats outside the southern half of Dublin, East Limerick (mainly the city), Galway and two pockets of Cork. In recent years the party's only successful broadening of its geographic base has been through acquisitions. They acquired an independent councillor (Mae Sexton) and her organisation in Longford, and in 2002 she won a Dáil seat for them there. One of the party's newest senators, Kate Walsh, was an independent county councillor and planning campaigner in Kildare. Their most profitable acquisition was from the IFA when they attached former President Tom Parlon and many of his Laois-Offaly IFA associates to the Progressive Democrat electoral train in 2002.
Examples of organically grown Progressive Democrat seats, outside the initial bases of the original Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael breakaways who founded the party, are few and far between. The Progressive Democrats' primary policy focus for the next election is likely to be tax. The party has already published radical proposals for income tax cuts and changes in stamp duty are also promised. Michael McDowell successfully brought attention to the party's agenda at their ‘think-in' in Malahide in September 2006 by calling for a reexamination of the stamp duty regime. Although they published no specifics when they raised the issue, promising more detailed proposals before the election, the party tapped into a rich vein of potential support, particularly among those affected by high stamp duty bills when trading up from their first purchased home. They have promised a detailed policy on energy and agriculture, focusing on the need for agriculture to engage in alternative energy generation. The party has also put particular emphasis on the idea of moving the congested Dublin Port to Bremore in north County Dublin, a scheme with which the party's candidate in that area, Tom Morrissey, has been most associated. However, much of the Progressive Democrats' position and standing with the electorate will be shaped by the performances of Michael McDowell and Mary Harney in Justice and Health respectively. Harney, who had always been one of the most popular party leaders, found that her position had suffered when, in September 2004, she took up the Health portfolio.
Her approval rating in the Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion polls was 54 per cent at that time, but by May 2006 it had fallen to 34 per cent. In the lead-in to the election and during the formal campaign, the party is likely to focus on repeating, and perhaps developing, two themes visited by Michael McDowell on a number of high-profile occasions since the last election. The first is that whoever is the smaller party in the next coalition will determine the overall direction of the government, or as he puts it, ‘it's the meat in the sandwich which gives it its flavour'. The second will be the suggestion that any alternative government would be dominated by the left of centre policies of Labour or maybe even the Green Party, that this will undermine the country's economic progress and that such a coalition will lead to a slump. There are signs, however, that these arguments may not be resonating with the electorate to the extent that McDowell might hope.