'Rottweiler' McDowell becomes Irish deputy prime minister

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The Independent Online

The Irish Republic's most acerbic and aggressive politician - known as the country's most anti-IRA public figure - is to become the country's new deputy prime minister.

Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice, was elected yesterday unopposed as leader of the Progressive Democrat Party after other candidates stepped aside to allow him to take the post uncontested.

Although the PD is a small party it plays an important role in Irish politics since it has for years been in government as coalition partner with the much larger Fianna Fail Party.

The Progressive Democrats' significance has always been heightened by Mr McDowell himself, since his outsize personality and prominence in the media have ensured a permanently high profile for his party.

A senior barrister, he has been active in public life for decades, holding the offices of Attorney General and Justice Minister. His intelligence and ability are widely acknowledged, though his trademark political aggression - he has been referred to as a "rottweiler" - means that he has made many enemies.

The question is whether he has the temperament to help run a coalition government, with its many necessary compromises. With a general election due next year, and his party running low in opinion polls, his task is to assure voters he can work smoothly as deputy to the Prime Minister, Fianna Fail's Bertie Ahern.

The uninhibited McDowell rhetoric has been directed in the past at Mr Ahern, though the Fianna Fail leadertakes these things in his stride. "He called me Ceaucescu," Mr Ahern said, "but I didn't jump up looking for an apology." Mr Ahern worked amiably enough with the long-standing PD leader Mary Harney, who took many by surprise last week when she announced she was resigning.

Unlike the Blair-Brown tangle in Britain, the question of the succession was dealt with quite rapidly over the weekend, with Mr McDowell's two possible rivals agreeing to support him in exchange for senior appointments in the party.

One of the most striking themes of Mr McDowell's recent career has been his sustained attacks on Sinn Fein and the IRA: all parties attack the republicans, but his language went beyond the norm. He described the IRA as "a massive criminal organisation which kills, tortures and plunders", accusing Sinn Fein of "vomit-making, stomach-turning hypocrisy". He further accused the Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of being members of the IRA's army council.

Sinn Fein in reply accused Mr McDowell of putting "personal ambition and narrow sectional interest" before the peace process and of being "in fear and trepidation" of further republican political advances.

Recently he has acknowledged that a genuine run-down of IRA activity has taken place, but as Justice Minister he keeps a close eye on republicans.

An irony is that while the PDs have been perceived to be on the slide, Sinn Fein has been building its base. Mr McDowell will be struggling to hold his eight seats, but Gerry Adams predicts Sinn Fein will increase from five to 10. The republicans could therefore be his direct rivals as Mr Ahern seeks new coalition partners.