Fianna Fáil backbenchers 'relaxed' about McDowell

Bertie's backbenchers have softened their attitude to Michael McDowell since his elevation, but some are not convinced that he will be able to 'behave properly' in his new position. By Frank Connolly

Fianna Fáil backbenchers are in a relaxed mood following the appointment of Michael McDowell as leader of the Progresive Democrats and Tánaiste. Earlier this summer, some TDs expressed great disquiet at the very mention of his name and the attempted formation of a new independent backbench committee was largely inspired by the statutory rape debacle which they blamed on the Justice Minister.

His commitment to the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, that his party will remain in government to full term next year has clearly eased whatever fears may have arisen following Mary Harney's surprise resignation as party leader, although some backbenchers still believe that McDowell may not be able to control his darker side for the nine months.

Cork TD Noel O'Flynn, one of the prime movers behind the unsuccessful attempt to set up the new backbench committee, is an admirer of Michael McDowell, due in no small part to the minister's attempt to curb immigration and the numbers of asylum seekers. Nonetheless, he is not convinced that the new Tánaiste will be able to control his temper.

"I have no difficulties with his leadership of the PDs. I am an admirer of his due to a number of policies he has pursued. Of course he would not be endearing to every citizen in the State and I would hope over the next nine months he won't cause too many problems for Fianna Fáil. His delayed action in the statutory rape issue was regrettable. But I am an admirer of his, particularly on the immigration issue. He is a hard-working minister and he has made it clear that he wants to work with Fianna Fáil after the next election. I have no difficulty with him provided he thinks before he utters," Noel O'Flynn told Village.

Kilkenny based John McGuinness TD, who was also involved in the proposed FF backbench committee proposal, said that he believes McDowell will stay the course if he can adopt a different style.

"It is up to him. His name on the doorsteps is as the unacceptable face of the government. He will have to adopt a different style and accept that he is part of a coalition government. There is a genuine concern about him among TDs and people managing the party that he can damage our prospects. Politically, he is making all the right sounds at the moment but the record has shown that it is a big challenge for him to behave properly," McGuinness said.

Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Mary O'Rourke, is also an admirer of the Minister for Justice who, she says, always personally brings his proposed legislation to the upper house and shows proper respect for the institution.

"I like him personally. He brings his bills to the Senate and comes back for the committee stages. He is upfront and gung ho. No problem," she told Village.

Sean Fleming TD of Laois-Offaly, who is competing for votes with PD junior minister Tom Parlon, believes that McDowell's limited appeal will further narrow the political base of the smaller party.

"I love to see a leader of another political party who is not popular. In the run-up to the general election we will be paddling our separate canoes. If McDowell decides to pull out of government in a fit of pique, it will only confirm what people thought of him. But he has given a commitment to the Taoiseach and he has always been on good terms with Bertie. At the same time, it is not good to be too associated with a party whose most prominent member aggravates the public."

Against the conciliatory trend an influential Dublin TD, speaking off the record, is convinced that McDowell will take his party out of government well in advance of the election.

"I see a straight forward dichotomy between his twin objectives to restore the PDs and to implement an agreed programme for government. I believe there is a strong likelihood the PDs will walk out, although he will probably leave it as late as possible. I have no doubt he is already choosing the issue on which to break with Fianna Fáil. Equally, Bertie Ahern is no doubt planning on that eventuality and will absolutely go the distance to June 2007."