Leading article: A question of identity

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The Independent Online

Michael McDowell has been one of the Irish Republic's most conspicuous and fearless political figures, forever at the centre of disputes, relishing and even courting controversy. He brought into politics from his impressive law career a fixed belief that conflicts should generally end not in compromise, but in victory and defeat.

He has likened political opponents to Goebbels, Mussolini, Ceaucescu and to chimpanzees: he is, in other words, a warrior and not a healer. Now, as Ireland's new Deputy Prime Minister, he is to be at the heart of the Dublin political system.

As the new leader of the Progressive Democrats he will head a party which, though small, has been strategically highly significant. His performance between now and next year's general election could be vital in determining how Ireland is governed. What could be crucial, not just for domestic politics but also for Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations, is whether he can hold enough Dail seats to facilitate another coalition government. If he cannot, then the larger parties will be casting around, possibly in some desperation, for alternative partners. One alternative is Sinn Fein which, expecting to take 10 Dail seats, is hoping against hope for a coalition offer.

The irony is that the Progressive Democrats could conceivably be ejected from government, to be replaced by Sinn Fein. This would be a blow to Mr McDowell, given the energy he has expended in attacking both Sinn Fein and the IRA. The IRA, he would concede, is now largely gone, but its political wing hopes to receive a hefty political reward for its departure.

The record of the PDs in government illustrates how even a small party can achieve results, and illustrates too that coalitions can be surprisingly stable. The party is to the right in Irish politics, and came into being two decades ago as a party of fiscal rectitude. It offered an antidote to the excesses of former prime minister Charles Haughey.

Haughey has now gone, of course, while the huge prosperity brought by the era of the Celtic Tiger means that PD calls for belt-tightening have generally been unnecessary. And, as the years have passed, the PDs became comfortable in government.

In the process, though, they have, as junior coalition partners, lost something of their distinctive identity. Their punishment has been recent opinion poll ratings as low as two per cent. Mr McDowell is a politician with radical instincts: now his task is twofold. He has to keep the present coalition going, but also to give his party a sharp new edge.