Inequity the bedrock of McDowell's 'Republic'

Tue, Aug 3, 2010, 01:00

The idea of the ex-PD pontificating on ‘true republicanism’ has the south Dublin absurdity of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

I WAS very disappointed to read Ross O’Carroll-Kelly in The Irish Timeson Saturday. It’s not that Ross hasn’t been in flying form of late. It’s just that I was hoping to confirm that the author had pulled a fine satiric stunt and persuaded Madam to move the column to the front page on Friday.

The idea of Michael McDowell addressing a private audience at the Kildare Street and University Club about “true republicanism” just had to have been dreamt up by Ross’s father and his sidekick Hennessy. It has all the hilarious absurdity of their myopic south Dublin self-regard.

But alas, no. There was Ross on his usual Saturday pedestal. Michael really was thrilling the private diners with flirtatious intimations of his own patriotic duty to save the Republic.

Yet again, we are reminded of why Ireland is the hardest country in the world in which to be a satirist.

I like Michael McDowell. He’s very bright and articulate and able. He’s passionate about political ideas and he has a habit of revealing openly the right-wing agenda that others prefer to conceal in a miasma of populism. He’s smart enough to know that the struggle in Irish politics over the next five years will indeed be for control of the idea of the Republic – what it is, what it means, who it’s for.

But there is one obvious problem. Michael wouldn’t recognise a republic if he shared a cell in Thornton Hall with it for 10 years.

Leave aside the prima facie evidence of having sat at the Cabinet table for a decade while the country was run – to disastrous long-term effects – in the interests of elites and cliques. Let’s consider four things that would seem to be central to any meaningful definition of the way a republic works.

Firstly, a republic is a political community in which public resources are used for the common good. As to how McDowellism might meet this requirement, two words will suffice – Thornton Hall.

One might call Michael’s fantasy prison project a “Ceausescu-era project” if someone else didn’t have copyright on the phrase, but it is the Bertie Bowl for the law-and-order set.

Michael bought a farm for €200,000 an acre – at least twice the market rate in a crazily inflated market. For a project that won’t create a single prison place until at least 2014, the public has paid about €43 million. “Maintenance and security” of the field are costing us €125,000 a year.

A republic is an entity in which reasoned dissent and open debate about public policy are highly valued.

Michael has always seen “reasoned dissent” as a contradiction in terms. He crushed the Centre for Public Inquiry. He pulled the plug on the Citizen Traveller campaign when it dared to be controversial. He delayed and censored the reports of his department’s own inspector of prisons, Judge Dermot Kinlan.

Thirdly, a republic is a system in which public service is undertaken with a certain humility.

Has there ever been in Irish politics a more shameful display of egotistical petulance than Michael’s self-dramatising exit from politics at the 2007 general election? His party was being decimated. The fate of some of his TDs was still in the balance. People who had worked for and believed in the PDs were traumatised.

And what does their leader do? Does he give them words of comfort or courage? Does he even feed them platitudes and wait a few days before announcing his decision? No, he makes a solipsistic speech about his own career whose unselfconscious egotism would make Narcissus blush.

Lastly and most importantly a republic is constructed around a single, central and immutable value – equality. One of the refreshing things about Michael is that he has made it clear that he simply doesn’t believe in it – on the contrary, he regards inequality as a necessary condition for a healthy economy.

In 2004 – rather deliciously while serving as minister for equality – he told the Irish Catholicthat “a dynamic liberal economy like ours demands flexibility and inequality in some respects to function”. It was such inequality “which provides incentives”.

Never mind that the incentives it provided were to mindless and unsustainable greed at the expense of the common good and long-term prosperity.

Michael McDowell’s flirtation with a return to politics, whether through a new party or as Fine Gael’s secret weapon against Lucinda Creighton (mark my words – if McDowell stands for Fine Gael, Creighton will top the poll), is really a mark of the bankruptcy of right-wing politics.

It suggests both an understanding that a new republicanism will indeed be the agenda of the next five years and a complete failure to grasp the values that must animate that agenda.

If Michael McDowell is the answer, what could possibly have been the question? It must have been pretty dumb.

The only one that comes to mind is “how can we fill the gap in the market for the clapped-out neoliberalism driven by monstrous egotism that gave us such good government in the Bertie Ahern years?”

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