Is his bark worse than his bite?


"THE left have chosen wisely," says political colleague.

"To get back into government they need to get at the PDs, but Mary Harney is untouchable. You can't mug a woman who is more popular than you are. McDowell is the only realistic target."

The left is delighted about Michael McDowell. Any party that wants Irish politics to be ideological needs an opponent they can say personifies everything they stand against. When the Fianna Fail/Labour government was being formed, for example, Desmond O'Malley had to settle for Michael D. Higgins, suggesting that he would "go mad" if he became a minister.

Labour has selected Michael McDowell and intends to portray him as an extreme right wing ideologue. All Labour have to do during the next election campaign, a Labour source said last week, is keep repeating Michael McDowell's name. "Vote Labour or this man gets into government" is the message.

McDowell himself sees another element in the strategy. If the attempt to get the Government reelected fails, Labour can approach Fianna Fail offering itself as an alternative partner to the demon McDowell's party.

There is yet another element. By demonising McDowell, Labour can by extension demonise Fianna Fail. With Fianna Fail and the PDs putting themselves forward as the alternative government, the Labour message is: "A vote for Fianna Fail is a vote to put this man into government".

McDowell has all the necessary qualifications for elevation to Lab our's No 1 public hate figure. He does hold strongly right wing views on the economy. His party wants to cut the top tax rate, not just the lower one. He wants to shed public service jobs, cut public spending, bring "flexibility" into the labour market and privatise many State enterprises.

Complementing his strongly held portfolio of (in Labour's view) consistently appalling ideas is a take no prisoners style of rhetoric, his delivery filled with an assertiveness that some see as arrogance. Rounding off the stereotype nicely is his appearance, his somewhat military bearing and severe neatness suggesting a humourless zealot.

This caricatured portrayal is grossly unfair. Colleagues and those opponents who have spent any time in his social company agree that he is a warm and charming man. "He is one of those deputies that you would choose to have a pint with," said a veteran Leinster House journalist.

But dislike for him crosses party lines and is not simply ideological. Many former Fianna Fail ministers despise him greatly as a result of his role during the 1989-1992 Fianna Fail/PD coalition. Although not even a Dail deputy, he popped up in the media regularly to berate Fianna Fail for not embracing radical tax reform, for its position on Northern Ireland, and for allegedly backsliding on commitments. He was a constant reminder for Fianna Fail of the humiliation of coalition.

Alan Dukes clearly dislikes him, too. The relish he took in calling him names this week was clear to television viewers. It is hard to discern much ideological content in Dukes's criticisms: ". . . the biggest political cry baby in Irish politics . . . shrinking violet . . . playground bully."

This is personal.

McDowell claims the abuse does not bother him. "It's not new. De Rossa has been at it for quite a while," he says. Proinsias De Rossa has put forward the left's appalling vista of Charlie McCreevy as Minister for Social Welfare and Michael McDowell as Minister for Finance.

His critics keep returning to his manner. "He gives the impression that he doesn't tolerate fools easily, and that he regards many of those less articulate than he is as fools," says a Government backbencher. "But he is impressive. His response to the Budget this week was delivered off the cuff and made Charlie McCreevy's scripted one look vacuous.

His self confidence is not surprising when you look back at what appears to have been a life of ambition matched by achievement. He comes from a solidly comfortable rather than filthy rich background. His father was a barrister and the family of five children, of which he was the youngest, was brought up in a rambling house in Leeson Street.

He attended Pembroke primary school, known as Mrs Meredith's, before progressing to Jesuit secondary education at Gonzaga. Although not particularly sporty, he played rugby for Gonzaga seconds for a period.

His impact upon arriving at UCD in October 1969 to study economics and politics, alarmed the left wing establishment that ran the students' union and dominated student politics. The previous year had seen what is often referred to as the "gentle revolution". Almost 200 students of various left wing hues occupied the college in the wake of student revolts in France and the US. The lead story in the Irish Independent the day after the occupation began: "The black flag of anarchy flew over UCD last night

The following October freshman McDowell had little time for the black flag of anarchy. He and his friend, Adrian Hardiman, used to turn up at student meetings and berate their left wing elders for their carry on.

McDowell sometimes wore his FCA uniform at these events, driving the lefties - who were opposed to anyone in a uniform - apoplectic. "The cheek of him, we thought," recalls one student leader, "he was only a first year, and what really annoyed us was that not only was he right wing but he was articulate as well."

He honed his rhetorical skills at the college debating societies, becoming auditor of the Law Society. He also had his first political success, defeating one Avril Belton, now Avril Doyle, for the post of chairman of the Fine Gael students' branch. He had joined Fine Gael as a teenager and worked in John A. Costello's last election campaign in 1965.

He achieved success as a barrister early, being called to the Bar in 1974, and became a senior counsel in 1987 at the age of 36.

His potential background was in Fine Gael and as a bright young barrister who was friendly with the family of the Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, a rapid rise through party ranks appeared likely. He stood unsuccessfully as a Fine Gael candidate for Dublin City Council in 1979.

He was Dr FitzGerald's director of elections in 1982, but within two years, he says, he had decided he would not vote Fine Gael again. "Coalition with Labour was dreadful, I could see them doubling the national debt and I decided I was not going to try to get this government re elected."

Fine Gael friends and colleagues were dismayed at his growing disenchantment with the party. But that was nothing to their surprise when he joined the Progressive Democrats on the day of their foundation. It was not a spur of the moment decision.

As the only non Fianna Failer at the launch in 1985, he became chairman to soften the impression - that the party consisted only of a disaffected former Fianna Fail anti Haughey rump.

He has always been the party's dominant intellectual and ideological influence. He was the single most important influence on his party's taxation policy. He once advocated property tax, although his party led the charge against the one that was abolished in this week's Budget.

He and his party vehemently deny they are there to defend a well paid middle class, but regularly find themselves doing so. He has opposed all Labour inspired attempts to extract more tax from the better off, including the wealth tax of the 1980s, the withholding tax on professional fees and the property tax.

He describes himself as liberal on social issues and market orientated on economic issues. Manly of his policy stances are classic's from the Tory right wing mould.

In 1986, for example, soon after his selection as a PD candidate for Dublin South East, he was pledging laws to force unions to hold secret ballots on strike proposals, to outlaw secondary picketing and to introduce compulsory strike notice periods. When still in Fine Gael he advocated a public works scheme as an option to replace the dole.

But he insists that he is not a right winger on the British "Thatcherite" model. "We are not the same as British society, we can't import an English model into Ireland." He says he would take a pragmatic rather than an ideological view of privatisation, for example.

HIS barristerly certainty, aggression and doggedness deeply irritate his opponents. His skin, however, is not as thick as many believe and as he would like to portray. He was deeply hurt by the loss of his Dail seat in 1989 (he regained it in 1992). He was not a man who knew much about losing. He had a golden legal career, reaching its pinnacle in his mid 30s. He was sought after for the very toughest cases. At the same time he had been the driving force behind a new political party that had severely shaken the political establishment.

He accepted defeat graciously in public ("I cannot say I did not have a chance of getting my case over," he said on the day). He prematurely suggested that "the tide has gone for the PDs" and told friends that he was considering leaving politics.

But within weeks he had adopted a new role as guardian of the true Progressive Democrats flame, as his party, reduced to just six deputies, found itself in coalition with Fianna Fail. As a very small party in government, the PDs gave McDowell free rein to keep the flag flying, not just from outside the Cabinet but from outside Leinster House.

His interventions undoubtedly contributed to tension between the government partners and the eventual break up of the Fianna Fail/PD coalition. But they also kept the party's identity alive.

Does the name Michael McDowell scare people? Certainly the chatty, relaxed and modest sounding man who turned up on Marian Finucane's Live Line programme on Wednesday describing himself as a Golden Labrador, rather than a Rottweiler didn't sound very scary.

His manner and style leave him open to being portrayed as a nasty individual, but he is not. Whether his politics are nasty is a matter of opinion.