Michael McDowell is what? How amazing…

Ranelagh Arts fest. Senate Debate, Sandford Park school. Ruairi Quinn, Michael McDowell, Eoghan Murphy TD, Noel Whelan. Chair: Dan O’Brien, Irish Times. Photo: Michael Foley.

Michael McDowell is many things, but a shrinking violet is not one of them. A thick-skinned political bruiser would be nearer my assessment of him,  and a smart thick-skinned political bruiser at that.

Which is why the last paragraph of an article in today’s Irish Times  by the leader of the ex-political party Progressive Democrats is surprising:

“Monday’s debate frightened me somewhat. I hope many, like me, will use the last weekend of the campaign to work out how best to use our votes to avoid chaos and to elect a Dáil that will deliver a coherent, capable and caring government. An awful lot rides on it.”

So – the bruiser is frightened and admits it, both astonishing matters.  And his appeal in that paragraph seems reasonable if deeply worried. But like everything else, Michael’s last paragraph needs set in the context of the article it ends.

The article criticizes pretty well everyone in last Monday’s debate except Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. It also defends Fine Gael and Fianna Fail for saying …you guessed it. For saying they won’t form a coalition with Sinn Féin. Nothing arrogant about that, Michael asserts. It’s perfectly reasonable for them to reject Sinn Féin because…At this point I take my hat off to Michael. It used to be that Sinn Féin must be avoided because they were linked to violence. Now he tells us Sinn Féin must be avoided because they’re not a democratic party. The TDs and the Senators elected are pawns who are told what to do by an unelected cadre “theoretically under the control of its árd chomhairle. No real dissent is permitted.”

I have no doubt that Sinn Féin is a highly disciplined party, and that the views of a relatively small number of people weigh heavily in deciding party policy. But then I think back to my working life as a high school teacher and as a lecturer in Óllscoil Uladh/Ulster University.

In both places we had staff meetings, chaired by the principal or the dean or whoever the head honcho was. Decisions would be made about all sorts of things – what courses would be offered, what committees set up, what policy the school or university would adopt. Did the staff  decide these?  Don’t make me laugh. The principal or the dean decided, and the trick was, to find out what the dean’s views were in advance, and to express your solidarity with this view.

Was/Is this a good state of affairs? Well, it’s efficient  but it’s a long way from democratic. And I’m willing to bet my 23 half-marathon medals that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and, yes, the Progressive Democrats when they were alive operated the same way.  To single out Sinn Féin and accuse them of being run by some shadowy group – a sort of non-violent but still somehow threatening IRA – is at best to be selective with the truth.

In fact, as the general election in the south develops, you can see another truth emerging:  Sinn Féin might not only make a comeback, they could have the kind of success that might change the nature of the south and the nature of the north. No wonder brass-cojones Michael is “somewhat frightened.” Sinn Féin so far are having a hugely successful election campaign. Be afraid, Michael. Be very afraid.

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