Former Tánaiste Michael McDowell spoke to Sam about the trials, tribulations and tribunals he’s been involved in throughout his varied career, spanning across Irish law and politics. In this interview he discussed:
- A family history of politics.
- Founding one of the most successful parties in its lifetime, the Progressive Democrats, and eventually becoming Tánaiste.
- The “poisonous culture” of the ‘blue wall’ he discovered while representing Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe.
- Fighting and filibustering Shane Ross and his Judicial Appointments Bill.
- How local government should be reformed and his views on the local property tax and how unfair it is.
- Being in favour of immigration as long as it is “controlled and reasonable.”
- How a federal Europe is not possible.
- His concerns over how the Broadcast Authority Ireland handled the banning of journalists from Communicorp stations.
- How RTE need to step up a gear in order to compete with the BBC.
- His regret in not disbelieving the experts in the lead up to the crash while in government.
- The possibility of becoming Mayor of Dublin.
Sam Smith (SS): Hello, I’m Sam Smyth and welcome to my podcast with The Currency. I’m talking to Senator Micheal McDowell. A slayer of dragons before judges and a white knight in our parliament. In other words, you’re making our laws in the Houses of the Oireachtas and then challenging them in the courts of law. Micheal you’ve been Minister for Justice and Attorney General. Does that not mark you out as the most privileged and pampered lawyer and politician in the history of the State?
Micheal Mc Dowell (MMcD): Well it was a great honour to be appointed Attorney General, and it was also a great honour to become Minister for Justice, and eventually Tánaiste. The odds against that happening are huge and it’s certainly not due to patronage, or whatever. When you look back at what I did do, I took what would have been seen as the unwise course of leaving Fine Gael to become co-founder of the Progressive Democrats. A lot of very wise people wouldn’t have put their money on that being a shrewd career move.
SS: Your grandfather Eoin MacNeill was the first Minister for Finance in this State. Your family was marinated in Fine Gael. You were the late Garret FitzGerald’s director of election. Then you went off as a founding member of the Progressive Democrats. From their beginnings in 1985, the PDs were in government more often than opposition until they dissolved in November 2008. Were they the most successful party in the history of the State?
MMcD: Certainly in their lifetime. The Progressive Democrats were probably the most influential party in politics at that time. In their 20 year existence, as you say, they were in government more often than not. People forget the kind of Ireland that the Progressive Democrats were born into. It was an almost Eastern European state of affairs in Ireland. We had the government owning two shipping lines, ship builders yards, all energy in Ireland like Bord na Mona, Dublin Gas, the ESB, all radio and television, all the means of generating any kind of communication including phones at the time, were State owned monopolies.
You go back to that period and then you’ll say, ‘the government owned a number of banks, it owned insurance companies, there was virtually no area of Irish economic activity that the government hadn’t a huge hand in.’ The world was changing and I think that the Progressive Democrats saw that. You use the word now, ‘neo-liberals.’ We weren’t neo-liberals, we were just trying to liberate Ireland from the dead hand of half a century of State control of the economy.
SS: Yeah, but then when you quit the PDs and the PDs walked off the stage, when Enda Kenny was leader, you were reported to be in negotiations to join Fine Gael.
MMcD: There were talks at that time about a merger of Fine Gael and the PDs but they came to nothing in the end. In the end quite a number of Progressive Democrat people ended up in Fine Gael at various levels, but unfortunately those talks came to nothing and the Fine Gael party chose to carry on by itself. It’s had success in the meantime.
One of the things I often think about is if Fine Gael won the 2007 election and the crash had come almost immediately afterwards, which was going to come for whoever was in government, bearing in mind what was happening internationally and what was happening nationally to the housing and construction boom and the borrowing boom, I think Fine Gael would have been destroyed for all time. So they were very, very lucky that they didn’t win the 2007 general election.
SS: Yeah I think your brother Moore said that that was an election to lose for anybody.
MMcD: He was absolutely right about that.
SS: You have reinvented yourself in some ways in recent years. One of those things was, and it was an extraordinary time, you represented Maurice McCabe the Garda Sergeant who was wrongly accused of not only being a peadophile, but also of abusing his own children. That must have been astonishing Micheal?
MMcD: Well, the first thing is that my profession as a barrister prohibits me from talking about cases that I have been involved in so I can’t really talk about that. But what I can say is that the result of the Charleton Report unmasked a culture, in some areas of the An Garda Síochana, a force which I greatly admire by the way, of dominance and exclusion, the ‘blue wall.’ And bearing down very heavily on anyone who stood out of line or blew any whistle. I think it’s fantastic that Drew Harris is there now. He seems to me, now it’s early days yet, but he seems to me a breath of fresh air. And also somebody who is willing to challenge the old culture of the An Garda Síochana.
SS: Well, he’s getting rid of 60 senior officers.
If you were head of the Gardaí administratively as Minister for Justice, did you not have a notion that there was this poisonous culture?
MMcD: Well I wouldn’t have called it poisonous and I didn’t realise that it could be so poisonous in relation to one individual, as it turned out to be. By the way I have to say, in relation to the commissioners that I dealt with, they were decent people and they were not guilty of anything wrong as far as I know. They had a good relationship with me as Minister for Justice. But one of the things that isn’t generally known is that the late Senator Maurice Hayes did a report for the department of Justice, just as I was coming towards the end of my tenure there.
SS: You were five years?
MMcD: Yes, I was. From 2002 to 2007. In 2006 he produced a report saying that it was essential that there should be a board of management of An Garda Síochana rather than just simply a commissioner surrounded by deputy commissioners and assistant commissioners. And that the board was to have a civilian majority on it and I brought that into the law in an Act early in 2007, which was brought in just months before I left office. And that was provided for.. It was never activated by my successors, and eventually we ended up with a totally different idea of an independent policing board, which has turned out not to be a success because it has kind of an antagonist relationship with the An Garda Síochana.
I think that we lose sight of a few things. First of all, we are a small common law State. There is no other common law State in the world where the national police force, as opposed to regional police forces, are not controlled by a commissioner who is responsible to somebody equivalent to a Minister for Justice. That’s the norm right across the world. I don’t believe that the policing function, which is an arm of the executive power of the State, should ever be outside the control and responsibility of a member of government. And that’s why I believe that it is important to have a Minister for Justice in the end who is accountable for how the police work, accountable to the Dáil and accountable to the public. And who demands accountability from the police force itself.
SS: Although, is there not a very good case too for there being a civilian input to that, because it can get very clubby now for a Minister and a Garda Commissioner to be chums.
MMcD: I completely agree and that’s exactly why that amendment to the Garda Síochana Act of 2005, which I put in in 2007, provided for a majority civilian board to take away the clubby kind of ‘blue wall’ aspect of An Garda Síochana. All I’m saying is that the independent policing board, I don’t think was the right way to deal with it. I think there has to be somebody in charge of An Garda Síochana. It has to be the commissioner and a board surrounding him of a majority of civilians who will actually bring civilian mindsets and processes into the running of An Garda Síochana. But in the end, the chain of authority, I think, has to go from the Gardaí to the Minister for Justice to Dáil Eireann. And let committees of Dáil exercise public accountability functions too.
I am one of the tiny minority of people who actually read the Moriarty Report from cover to cover. So I know what’s in it. And I know what its findings were
SS: The other thing too, which is noticeable in a small State is that very wealthy people, people in authority, in government, and so on, swoon when they say rich people.
You had a showdown with the billionaire Denis O’Brien who was the country’s wealthiest businessman and the most powerful and influential owner of media in the country. You, I know, had differences with him going back. You were also involved in a libel action with Mr O’Brien, representing the Sunday Business Post in the High Court. That appeared to get acrimonious and personal.
MMcD: Well, I don’t think it was personal. But again, I just want to say this; I’m not allowed to talk about my cases as a barrister and I don’t propose doing so.
But if you’re making the more general point that money speaks in Ireland, it does up to a point. But in the end there are mechanisms of holding wealthy people to account. And I am one of the tiny minority of people who actually read the Moriarty Report from cover to cover. So I know what’s in it. And I know what its findings were.
SS: You were retained by Judge Michael Moriarty I think weren’t you?
MMcD: But I just want to deal with the report itself.
SS: What were the findings?
MMcD: Well the findings were effectively that Denis O’Brien had, after the licence was awarded to him in circumstances which were deeply criticized by Judge Moriarty, the findings were that he took enormous care to take steps to conceal payments in the order of close to a million euros through various channels to Michael Lowry, the Minister at the time who was in charge of the department.
SS: And who was responsible for issuing the licenses of the second mobile phone…
MMcD: He was the Minister in charge of the department who awarded the second mobile phone licence to Denis O’Brien’s company. You can argue all you like about tribunals. And by the way, the fact that that tribunal eventually came across what was that the underlying truth really depended on an extraordinary series of chances. Including one individual who was putting pressure on Denis O’Brien to look after him in various different ways, eventually supplying information to the tribunal. But, the reality is that critical or not as we may be about tribunals, and I am always and was as Minister very conscious of the expense of tribunals and still am, but in the end the underlying truth was that that attempt to channel one million euros to Michael Lowry occurred and that Denis O’Brien appears to have been the person who was behind it.
SS: It does seem extraordinary though that in this State… In America they’ve got the FBI and other countries… We don’t seem to have a policing system that could have properly investigated that.
MMcD: Well it would have been very difficult to do it because, some of the transactions to which the Moriarty Report drew the public’s attention, first of all were offshore. And secondly, there’s a difference between the criminal process and the tribunal of inquiry process. In the tribunal of inquiry process, you can oblige people to make available to you records and to come and testify and effectively to cross-examine people in the criminal process. It’s up to one side, the State, to accumulate the evidence without the cooperation of a person who is accused.
So, there is a fundamental difference. You have to be fair to An Garda Síochana, I don’t think for one minute it was likely that the information that eventually unlocked the door for Moriarty’s report would have come to the Gardaí directly.
Most elected politicians view the media in the same sense as members of a herd of wildebeest in the Serengeti look at Pride of Lions up on the hillside.
SS: Well when you look at that, you’ve got to say that journalism played some part in that. How important is journalism to you, and indeed to this society?
MMcD: I think journalism and independent media commentary is an absolute essential to any democracy. It’s as important to a democracy that we have good journalism as it is important to a human being that they have blood circulating in their veins. You can’t have one without the other. People at one stage, I’ve forgotten who it was, said that if you had to have a choice between a free press or a free democracy, you’d choose a free press. In fact, that was a false dichotomy because you can’t have one without the other. If there aren’t free media in the country, you will not have democratic freedom for a very long at all.
SS: Except Michael, I have noticed and I’ve worked around Leinster House for a long time and indeed in Westminster and so on, but there is an instinctive suspicion of, and in some cases hatred for, the media by many politicians and governments.
MMcD: I can tell you this Sam, most elected politicians view the media in the same sense as members of a herd of wildebeest in the Serengeti look at Pride of Lions up on the hillside. They know that in the end, when push comes to shove, they’re going to try and pick somebody off. And the big thing is not to be found at the edge of the herd or in a weakened condition. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way, because there has to be a kind of an accountability mechanism. If you are misbehaving in politics, you have to realise that there are people who are on your case. It can’t just be the Gardaí and it can’t just be the Ceann Comhairle or somebody else. It has to be people who are looking at you in the round and asking the question, ‘does your behaviour add up?’ Or whatever. Or, ‘is what you’re saying acceptable?’ And calling you to account through independent media.
And that’s why sometimes I’m fascinated by the difference in approach. If you’re head of say the Rape Crisis Center and you go on Morning Ireland, you don’t get a grueling ever on your report or your expenses and whatever. Whereas if you go on as a politician, even to make a point which is shared by 90 per cent of the people, they feel almost instinctively obliged to start quarreling with you and suggesting that you’re only making this universally acceptable point because of some base motive to do somebody else down.
SS: The other thing about politicians, and recently we’ve seen some difficulties there about politicians, make the rules for themselves, which is always a difficult thing to try and keep straight.
But, it strikes me that when these people fob in, which is the equivalent of anybody else on a job clocking in, when you clock in on a job you know the time is noted straight away. Which makes me think that was designed deliberately so that there was the least accountability or scrutiny of politicians at that time.
MMcD: Well, the very idea that politicians should be required to fob in is questionable in my view. I’m in the happy position of living about a mile and a half from Leinster House. And to me, I would be in Leinster House almost every day dealing with Senate business and the group of independent senators business and the like, whether the House was sitting or not. And they invented a system whereby you had to prove that you were in Leinster House.
SS: Why was that? Why did you have to prove? Because people were skiving off?
MMcD: I don’t know precisely. I wasn’t there when it was put in. It didn’t exist when I was a member of Dáil Eireann. But it was brought in afterwards to make people, who were claiming travelling allowances from say the west of Ireland…
SS: To try and keep them honest I suppose.
MMcD: To try and keep them honest. But in effect though, it’s a very artificial measure of whether you’re contributing or not. It’s very, very easy. For instance, it operates at the moment that you attend 120 days a year. As you say, it doesn’t work out what time of day you’re attending. That’s the first thing. And the second thing is that it cuts off at 120 days. So, at a certain time in the year, I just ceased fobbing in because the machine just says you’ve already reached your target and that’s it.
RTÉ recently tried to correlate people’s attendance in Dái Eireann with whether they actually voted. That’s a bit artificial, because you might be there and, for instance if you were one of the smaller parties, you might think there’s no point to me voting this afternoon. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are together going to push that thing through. So, sitting there pressing a button just to keep the media happy is not a sensible use of your time.
SS: It would be worse if they started paying them for when they spoke Michael. Because they’d never shut up then I suppose.
Shane Ross became obsessed with the notion that the appointments of the judicial…
MMcD: As somebody who’s been accused of filibustering, I think I’d be a multimillionaire.
Ross became obsessed with the notion that the appointment of people to the bench was corrupted by cronyism
SS: Tell me, you’ve recently wrestled the Judicial Appointments Bill to standstill in the Senate. This looked as if it were a good idea to put civilians in the majority when they’re choosing judges to be appointed to the bench.
MMcD: Well, first of all, we do have a judicial appointment advisory board at the moment. And where the government doesn’t propose to promote an existing judge, they ask the judicial appointments advisory board to advertise the vacancy that has arisen in the courts. And the judicial appointments advisory board sends them a list of people who they think are worthy of appointment. It operates at the moment as a weeding out system of people who are unsuitable, rather than coming up with a shortlist or an actual suggestion.
Shane Ross became obsessed with the notion that the appointments of the judicial…
SS: This is the Minister for Transport and Sport?
MMcD: Yes. He became obsessed with the notion that the appointment of people to the bench was corrupted by cronyism and that improper people were getting it. His solution to that was to establish, or to demand, that the politicians should have nothing to do with it. Now, there is only one minor problem and that is the Constitution says that the government is the body which chooses judges. And any measure which takes that power away from government, or forces government, to accept somebody else’s recommendation or nomination is in fact unconstitutional. And this problem has afflicted that Bill from the moment it was put forward. They eventually applied the guillotine in the Seanad after a lengthy process, in which the Bill was gone through with a fine tooth comb, to use the phrase that Charlie Flanagan used about it. The Minister finally conceded that, in statutory form, there are two sections of the Bill saying that where the government proposes to appoint an existing judge it can just simply just tell the commission that that’s its proposal and the commissioner will have no further function.
But even wider than that, there’s an acknowledgement that the government can choose any eligible person to be a judge and to advise President Higgins to appoint them. Regardless of whether that person is or is not approved of by this commission. So, it’s quite a quango. It’s going to cost at least a half a million a year if it ever is put in operation. That’s five million over 10 years. It’ll achieve nothing. And I think it’ll deter a lot of good people from applying to be judges because they will wonder, ‘well what is going to happen? Am I supposed to do a beauty parade selling myself as a person to a group of civilians who know nothing about law really?’
SS: Well they do it in other countries Michael I think.
MMcD: They do. But it’s a different situation. We don’t need it and we have a written Constitution which says that it’s the government’s choice. So, other people can in other countries, where they don’t have that constitutional revision and have whatever they like. But in the end, the Bill is really largely redundant. Since Shane Ross has been a Minister, a great number of judges have been appointed. Now he’s tried to obstruct the appointment, by delaying them until this legislation gets through, unsuccessfully. But, a great number of people have been appointed judges and there hasn’t been a single squeak of a suggestion of cronyism or poor choices made by the government. There’s been a general acceptance that the cabinet, at which he has sat grumpily in the corner, has been making excellent choices unaided by any commission at all.
From the outside, I look at Dublin. It’s a mess.
SS: At this time of your life, is there a particular ambition, or something that you would wish to achieve if you went back there now?
MMcD: Well, there are many things that you deeply regret, when you’ve been elected to the Dáil over a number of terms, that you didn’t achieve. If you’re Minister for Justice, you can’t unless you’re Shane Ross, start deciding matters which are wholly outside your brief. But, there are many things that I think should be done. And one of them, for instance, is a wholly different approach to local government in Ireland, to land use, to urban planning. All of those things interest me hugely.
From the outside, I look at Dublin. It’s a mess.
SS: It’s funny Michael, if I just stop you there. You have strong views on Dublin issues. From white-water rafting, to public transport and so on. Would you not be better running as the first directly elected Mayor of Dublin?
MMcD: One of the things is that there is no yet worked out plan for an elected Mayor of Dublin. People are talking about it. And they’re talking about having a plebiscite about it. And they’re talking about its powers. But the most fundamental thing is to give an elected Mayor of Dublin, and an elected local authority for Dublin, real power. And that means taking away from the Custom House. It’s a completely paralytic effect on local government in Ireland. Local government in Ireland is largely done by prefects who are now county chief executives. They used to be called county managers. They operate as prefects of the Custom House. They pretend that they are, in some sense, guided by elected councillors. But elected councillors actual influence over what Dublin City Council does is negligible.
It is a budget of nearly a billion euro. It has 5,800 employees. And yet it could spend between half a million and a million on planning for a white-water rafting centre down in Georgia’s Dock. Without any public consultation about the planning aspect of it. Then bring this proposal before the Council and railroad it through.
SS: Except for one thing there Michael, that is that presumably the reason why these decisions are not being taken by elected councillors is that we did have tribunals of inquiry that did find that there was an unbelievable level of corruption.
MMcD: Well that’s one way of looking at it. There was planning corruption in Dublin County. The re-zoning, and all the rest of that, was something which was hugely problematical. To be fair to Garret FitzGerald, he did his level best to address it. It crossed all parties. And the Flood Tribunal ran into legal trouble later, but it did uncover planning corruption in Ireland. And I just wonder whether that was the tip of the iceberg. I believe there were other areas of of impropriety. Perhaps corruption actually involving some of the officials who were involved in making decisions as well.
SS: Your point is that just because someone earns a salary and the other one’s elected, one is not necessarily more honest than the other?
MMcD: Well that’s true. There is a whole load of points you could make. The Kenny Report, Mr Justice John Kenny, sometime back in the 60s, proposed that development land should be acquired by the community and that the profit on it should be absorbed by the community. Rather than by property owners. So, in other words, if it was required to have so many extra square miles of Dublin County, or whatever it is, or north Kildare, be brought into housing. That that should be done on a communal basis.
The Department of the local government, as it was then, now whatever it is, it advised various governments thereafter that there was some constitutional issue with that. There isn’t. De Valera’s Constitution was tailor made to accommodate that kind of thing happening.
You go down a street like Cuffe Street or Kevin Street in Dublin now, and you see a whole series of random office blocks thrown together beside Council housing. Just flung together in a random way.
SS: Who would be these grey-beards advising people, ‘Oh you can’t do that. That’s unconstitutional,’?
MMcD: The Constitution and the threat of unconstitutionality is always used by people who are reluctant to do something. And at the time, there were vested interests which wanted to keep landowners out of the clutches of the State and to keep the profits from redevelopment and re-zoning of land in private hands.
SS: Would that be ideological or would they be doing it for more practical reasons, ie. that they may get money for doing it?
MMcD: Well if you look at Dublin. To revert back to planning in Dublin, I mean in the 18th century in Dublin, there were wide street commissioners. All of the nice streets in Dublin, that we all value now, were laid out either by the Gardener Estate or the Pembroke Estate, or the wide street commissioners in the centre of the city. They widened streets and they insisted on the streets having a particular aspect at the end of it all. You go down a street like Cuffe Street or Kevin Street in Dublin now, and you see a whole series of random office blocks thrown together beside Council housing. Just flung together in a random way.
Now, why haven’t we given our Dublin local authority the right to plan streets, the right to CPO areas and to re-develop them. The answer is, they have those powers, but they won’t exercise them. Whenever I was involved in any issue in politics, where there was a possibility of the exercise of CPO powers by Dublin City Council or other local authorities, there was a huge reluctance to deploy such powers on the basis that it could become complicated. There’s no need for it to be complicated.
I was talking to Bertie Ahern the other day and we were both saying that until the motorways development was taken away from local authorities and handed over to somebody who would actually be able to build 60 or 80 kilometres stretches at a time under a single contract. There was a snail like pace in building the motorway system, insofar as we’ve built it. There were so many people who were afraid to take away from local authorities the right to build a two mile stretch of motorway which went through a particular county or whatever you know. It is astonishing.
My view about local property tax is that it’s fundamentally unfair.
SS: You have a ‘Watch this Space’ on your website regarding local property tax plans.
MMcD: My view about local property tax is that it’s fundamentally unfair. And I’ll tell you why Sam, I see on property supplements large Victorian houses with loose boxes and yards outside them going say for €400,000 in County Laois or Carlow or somewhere like that. Big houses. There could be a wealthy family in them with a combined income of between parents and kids of a quarter of a million euros. That House pays less in property tax than a modest terraced house built originally for housing the working class in centre city Dublin. A terraced house, I’m talking about a Coronation Street style house in certain areas of Dublin. And the question you have to ask is, ‘is that fair?’ That a well-to-do person living in very salubrious circumstances outside Dublin pays less towards his or her local authority than a person who could have a modest income of €40,000 or €50,000 coming into a household in Dublin and have a mortgage on the house.
It seems to me that the proposal that I have is that every local authority should grade its own properties, or residential properties, on a grid from A to J. The best being A and the least expensive being J. And between them, the property tax should bear a relationship between a wealthy property in Dublin and a modest house in Dublin. And that should have nothing to do with whether a house in County Laois, a substantial pad in County Laois, should have nothing to do with how it compares to a place in Dublin. So, it should be done County by County on a grid. And it should be done on the basis that the purpose of the property tax is not to bring money from Dublin to apply to local government somewhere else. It should be done on a fair basis that if you’re somebody living in a modest house in Dublin, on a very modest income with a large mortgage, you don’t end up paying far more in property tax than somebody living in a very substantial house outside Dublin.
SS: Okay listen do you foresee any traction for nationalism and populism here? Particularly looking at what’s happening in the United States and the UK.
MMcD: Well, I suppose, there are two things about nationalism and populism. I mean there’s the whole sort of partition issue in Ireland, which is one area, and the other I suppose which most people would identify fairly quickly would be the question of immigration policy. One of the problems, at the moment, is that a lot of people are engaging in virtue signalling on the subject of immigration. Saying immigration is very, very good. And, by the way, I believe immigration is good for Ireland. Provided it’s controlled and provided it’s reasonable. And provided that we remember what glues this country together is a sense of community.
There are people of the far left, and I remember that going back to the citizenship referendum, who actually put in writing a kind of a Marxist ideology that the nation State is a bourgeois concept and really there is a right of everybody to migrate all around the world to wherever they want to live. That’s a point of view which you can hold if you’re a convinced Marxist. But I don’t hold it. I believe that Irish independence and the independent Irish State depends, to an extent, on there being an identifiable community of culture. It doesn’t have to be a monochrome culture. There can be diversity. The orange and green for one, but immigrant and native cultures as well. It doesn’t have to be some kind of a fascistic….
SS: Immigrants then learn Irish, Irish history…
MMcD: And I think that immigrant’s kids should learn Irish and Irish history in the same way that anybody else would. That’s why the proposal to abolish history as a subject was to me astonishing. Because it would mean that if, and we would probably be very soon arriving at the point where, there’ll be Islamic schools in Ireland. I’m not against immigrants learning Islamic history but I do believe that when you’re in Ireland and the State’s system of education…
I’ve always thought that Fianna Fail are less federalist than Fine Gael is. Leo Varadkar, for instance, defined himself, when he was still aspiring to election, as a convinced European federalist. And I’m not a federalist.
SS: That’s Catholic schools..
MMcD: At the moment it’s Catholic schools. But one of the things about them is that the great majority of them have ceased to be seriously denominational. I don’t know of any Catholic school, for instance, that actually teaches its pupils to take a simple example that homosexuality is wrong.
SS: They did for a long time.
MMcD: Oh, they did yeah. But I don’t believe they do it anymore. And I know that this frustrates right wing Catholics, who write in certain journals. that Catholic education has ceased to be Catholic. But in general terms, I don’t think that many teachers who get up in front of pupils any more would attempt to convince teenagers that homosexuality is wrong and a sin. I don’t believe there are many people who would do that and I don’t believe that, by the way, there are many teenagers who would sit there and accept that in a class if it was attempted…
There are a good few people in Fine Gael who have a kind of a federalist view of Europe
SS: All things have changed. Tell me both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael appear to have pursued their ideology and ambitions in the EU. Are you as convinced as they are of the EU?
MMcD: Well no. I think there’s a difference in emphasis. I’ve always thought that Fianna Fail are less federalist than Fine Gael is. Leo Varadkar, for instance, defined himself, when he was still aspiring to election, as a convinced European federalist. And I’m not a federalist.
SS: That was when he was knocking around with Lucinda Creighton…
MMcD: Perhaps. She, I think, would be classified as a federalist too. But they’re not alone. There are a good few people in Fine Gael who have a kind of a federalist view of Europe. I’d say John Bruton would be another of them. And I don’t believe that the majority of Irish people actually want us to become to the United States of Europe what North Dakota is to the United States of America. I think most people have a different view. And by the way, the opinion polls have shown this whenever they’re fairly asked the question. That we regard the European Union as a partnership of sovereign nation States that share sovereignty, to a limited degree, but not as a federation in which all power comes from the centre. And you look at the French President at the moment Emmanuel Macron, he is constantly demanding that Europe should militarise in one way or another.
SS: And taxes harmonised…
MMcD: Exactly, he wants harmonisation as well. But militarisation is hugely important because if you do put together a European defence capacity it will, in fact, in all probability be deployed to defend Europe. It’ll be to project European power in North Africa, the Middle East or wherever. And you have to ask yourself, if you created such a capacity you’d have to have democratic accountability as to how it would be exercised. Because looking at America, for instance, the various incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and the like, show that when you create a capacity to use military power outside your own territory you need to have democratic controls over it. That in turn means that you would need to have an elected government in Europe. And the whole point about the European project is this: it isn’t like the United States of America in the 18th century. It isn’t a people with a common language and a roughly common set of religious beliefs getting together to found a federal State. Europe is a very diverse thing.
I think that those people, in Fine Gael for instance, who are Euro federalists are in a small minority in Ireland. But they’re a vocal minority
SS: A marriage of convenience.
MMcD: It is a marriage of convenience. But the idea that, for instance, there would be an elected president of Europe by popular suffrage… How are people in Bulgaria and Ireland to sort of work out what is being said in the face to face debates between a Polish candidate and a Portuguese candidate. If it came to that. We aren’t there and we’re never going to be there because the idea of a federal Europe is really akin to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a power base based on suppression of difference. I don’t believe that federalism will ever be accomplished. I think that, largely speaking, it’s a Tower of Babel.
I think the people of Europe are far more sensible than to go down that road. I think they really do believe in a kind of partnership type of Europe. And I think that those people, in Fine Gael for instance, who are Euro federalists are in a small minority in Ireland. But they’re a vocal minority because they have, how would I put it… cheerleaders here and there. The European movement in Ireland is subsidised. The European political parties are heavily subsidised in elections. And the other thing about them is that there are people like Jean Monnet professors paid for in Europe. There is a European TV channel on satellite.
SS: Well They’re sponsored aren’t they?
MMcD: It’s a sponsored mechanism. You see I’m not a Eurosceptic, I’m a Euro realist. I really do believe that the European Union has been very good for Ireland. And I’ve always voted that way in referenda. But I’ve always been conscious that I am not willing to take the ultimate step of plunging Ireland into a federal Europe. And I think the majority of Irish people would oppose any such proposal.
The question is, why was it done in the first place? Who ordered it? Was it the managing director…
SS: Your views appear to have become less pro establishment and more radical in recent years. I’m just looking at something here. You did warn about oligarchs and said that Ireland was, and I’m quoting you, “in danger of going the way of Putin’s Russia or Berlusconi’s Italy.” From, and I’m quoting again, “very wealthy men who don’t like tribunals in their reports and who have adopted foreign residents to avoid paying taxes.” Do you take comfort from your new found reputation as a giant killer?
MMcD: It’s not a question of me being a giant killer. But it is a question of control of the media. I believe that RTE, for instance, is a very good public service broadcaster. But I believe it has been hugely afraid to tackle many issues because of a powerful vested interest. Some people’s names can hardly be mentioned in RTE without a sort of apology before and after their name being mentioned.
Does anybody seriously believe that a paid executive in Communicorp decided that The Currency contributors should not be permitted to participate in current affairs programs because they were a competitor?
SS: Dare not speak his name.
MMcD: We’ve had the Irish Times banned from participating in Communicorp radio stations.
SS: And indeed, The Currency.
MMcD: And indeed, The Currency. In my view that is not merely pernicious, but I believe it is in the case of broadcasting, it’s a clear breach of the duty of impartiality in current affairs which is a condition of every licence holder.
And the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has recently indicated, that as far as they were concerned, because the ban on The Currency contributors being on Commuicorp owned radio stations, that because that ban appears to have been rescinded that they’re taking no further part in investigating it. That’s wholly wrong and I was shocked when I saw that that is what the attitude the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland are taking.
The question is, why was it done in the first place? Who ordered it? Was it the managing director…
SS: They said it was done by the manager.
MMcD Yes. Well, if it was done by the management, at whose suggestion? Were they right or were they wrong to do this? And who put them up to this? I mean, that’s the first point. Does anybody seriously believe that a paid executive in Communicorp decided that The Currency contributors should not be permitted to participate in current affairs programs because they were a competitor?
SS: Not just those who are contributors but those who are executives too.
MMcD: By the same token, go back to the Business Post, as it’s now called. It’s a competitor just as much as…
SS: You worked for The Sunday Business Post.
MMcD: Yeah exactly.
SS: But you don’t anymore. Why is that?
MMcD: But the point is that the Business Post is just as much a competitor of Communicorp theoretically as The Currency. And it cannot be that that was the bona fide reason for banning The Currency’s contributors from broadcasting on Communicorp stations.
So if that is a false reason, and if the real reason was different, as I believe it was, then it seems to me to fall to an investigation by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland as to whether there was a breach of the impartiality requirement of licensees. And secondly, there has to be some accountability. Somebody should somehow bring that chief executive in and say, ‘Was this your personal decision unaided and why did you single out one particular group?’
SS: It’s not one particular group its several groups.
MMcD: Exactly. And was The Irish Times, your decision to exclude them, yours and yours alone? And if it was, are you suitable to run any radio station? And if it wasn’t and if you were told by your owners to make that decision, are they to be accountable and are you a suitable person if you won’t stand up to that kind of dictation? Those are the questions that I believe should be answered.
I strongly believe that it’s shameful that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has walked away from that saying, ‘well they’ve rescinded the ban and that’s the end of our role in the matter.’ It isn’t and it shouldn’t be and it does raise questions about the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland itself.
If you look at BBC Spotlight programmes on the Troubles. If you look at them carefully, they are far superior in their bravery and their scope to a lot of broadcasting on the same subject from RTE.
SS: The Quinn organisation too.
It may be that RTE are more timid of defamation but I think it goes further than that. Going back even to remember the beef scandal that led to the Hamilton Tribunal. It was an ITN program I think, World in Action, which dealt with that. While I praise RTE for their current affairs coverage and for their impartiality, impartiality does not mean timidity. When the words ‘Freddie Scappaticci’ feature at length in some RTE program, I’ll know that we have genuine investigative journalism.
It’s far easier to investigate ‘Button Gate’ in the Dáil or whatever, than it is to take on really, really serious issues like that.
The Spotlight programmes on the Troubles in Northern Ireland were of a different dimension from anything I’ve seen RTE attempt.
SS: Well they have. RTE Investigates has for instance, and primetime, have done a number of courageous and hard hitting pieces.
MMcD: Oh they have and I am supportive of RTE and its investigative journalism. But can I make this point about it: It’s easy enough to do an investigation of creches in Ireland, and you will get the odd threat of an injunction, or a solicitor’s letter thrown your way. But the Spotlight programmes on the Troubles in Northern Ireland were of a different dimension from anything I’ve seen RTE attempt.
I believe by the way that they should have a secure income. I think that the idea of a licence fee as it’s currently constituted on the basis of chasing people all around Ireland…
SS: They’re trying to go for a broadcasting charge now.
MMcD: A broadcasting charge on every house and every hotel room in Ireland is my way of doing it. And I’ve argued for that consistently at the Communications Committee and at the Oireachtas. But I believe that RTE does, and public service broadcasting does, deserve a solid income base of an independent and predictable kind. But I just want to say this, that if RTE are to be given that, instead of having lengthy arguments about whether they should sell this piece of property or that piece of property, their biggest and best card for them to play is to emulate the achievements of the BBC in relation to public affairs. They have to step up a gear. They really have to change how they do things and they have to be willing to be brave in present circumstances and not to back down when the solicitor’s letter comes in or particular PR people ring up halfway through a program and start making threats about what’s happening to their…
SS: Well they have to abide by the law I suppose. What you need to do is change the defamation laws.
MMcD: I believe that the defamation laws when they are rigorously applied, for instance I believe that an average Irish jury will uphold fair and decent journalism, and I am very scared of the idea to just kick out juries completely out of the process. Because judges are unaccountable judges. If one judge takes over the jury list and does all that all the defamation cases, it won’t be long before people are complaining about bias here or there. Whereas nobody ever complains about bias by a jury. Nobody ever does.
SS: Just as we’re heading towards the end now, do you have any regrets from your time in public life?
MMcD: I have many regrets I suppose. That I didn’t achieve more when I held ministerial office. You’d be very strange and very smug if you said ‘I have no regrets.’ Many things have happened when I was there. For instance, one of the biggest regrets I have is that I didn’t disbelieve the Central Bank and the ESRI and wake up one morning and say, ‘there’s a housing bubble and credit bubble here and the banks are out of control.’ But, unfortunately I didn’t know that. I was told by all the expert agencies that there was no problem. Sometimes in a fantasy world, I sort of say to myself, imagine if I had stood up and said, ‘we’ve got to let the air out of the property bubble and get the banks in order and stop 120 per cent mortgages,’ and all the rest of it.
An awful lot of people suffered an awful lot of pain because the Central Bank, and the ESRI, and the government, and the Department of Finance, and all the elected politicians on all sides made disasters…
SS: Well there was an economist at UCD shouting at everybody. People thought he was half daft
MMcD: That’s right. And somebody, we’ll leave it charitably anonymous, suggested he might commit suicide.
If you want a regret, it certainly is a regret on my part that I didn’t see that happening and that I didn’t do something to stop it. Because an awful lot of people suffered an awful lot of pain because the Central Bank, and the ESRI, and the government, and the Department of Finance, and all the elected politicians on all sides made disasters…
SS: That was the recession?
MMcD: But I would like to make a point about this, in the 2007 election, which immediately preceded the slump, people forget that Pat Rabbitte and Enda Kenny, with their Mullingar accord, outbid the PDs on tax reductions and tax cut promises. They later blamed the PDs for the outcome of low tax policies. But they themselves offered the electorate, unsuccessfully as I commented earlier, they offered more goodies in terms of tax reductions than the PDs actually had done themselves.
SS: If you were to get one last shot at it and you managed to get back into public life, who knows, maybe even into ministerial office, is there a particular ambition that you would like to fulfill?
MMcD: Well, regardless of whether I go back into Dáil politics, or remain in the Seanad, or are successfully a member of the next Oireachtas or no, the big thing that has to happen in Ireland is spatial and urban planning. That is the area which is crying out for a wholly different approach from government. It and health are the two areas of massive failure of the present government. I can’t hold myself out as somebody who’s the coming force in health policy. But I do believe that, whatever role I have whether it be as a commentator or a senator or anything else, that I will put my efforts into ensuring that the necessary changes to make this country a success, to build cities that we can be proud of, to build infrastructure that we can be proud of. Those things must be the number one item for the next 10 years.
SS: It seems to me, Michael McDowell, that you’ve just the best application I’ve seen yet to be the first directly elected Mayor of Dublin with an unlimited budget.
MMcD: Well, you’re biased Sam.
SS: But anyway, we’re out of time. So, Michael McDowell, thank you very much for talking to me today. And I’d like to thank everyone of you who listened to this edition of my podcast with The Currency.
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