Kieran Allen takes Michael McDowell to task for his latest efforts to draw a false equivalence between the far left and far right, arguing that McDowell’s own record leaves him much closer to the right than he would like to pretend.
Some people like porridge for breakfast. It fills them up so they will not need food until lunchtime.
Some also want a quick fix for their intellectual diet. Step forward Michael McDowell, senior counsel, founder of the now defunct Progressive Democrats. McDowell has been given a privileged perch in the Irish Times to turn out a weekly column of quick summary arguments against the left. You will hear echoes of McDowell and other right wing columnists in office canteens, staff rooms and golf clubs.
The recent fascist protest at the Dáil provides a good example of the barrister’s method. You see the problem, he claims, is not the far right – it is the far left AND the far right. And as the voice of reason, McDowell speaks from an exact midway point between both ‘extremes’.
His evidence for this equation is a protest in Jobstown exactly nine years ago when the Labour leader, Joan Burton, was slow marched out of the area by Paul Murphy and others.
A moment’s reflection will show how the comparison is totally false. Burton had cut the income of unmarried mothers yet thought she could enter one of the poorest areas of Dublin without encountering protest. Afterwards the Gardaí staged dawn raids on the homes of protestors. Paul Murphy and five others were dragged before the courts on the absurd charge of ‘false imprisonment’. They were acquitted when they showed, through video evidence, that the Gardaí had perjured themselves.
McDowell does not mention the acquittal. Instead by using a rhetorical trick, he leaves his readers with hazy picture to imply an equivalence of far left and far right.
But where is it? The far right threaten to hang left wing TDs, protest outside their homes but the Gardaí stand aside. They burn accommodation centres reserved for asylum seekers yet no arrests have been made. They beat up asylum seekers in Ashford, in Dublin, yet nobody has been charged.
In Jobstown the left protested against an unjust minister who attacked the most vulnerable people. The far-right attack left wingers who stand up for the most vulnerable people.
But neither does McDowell occupy some centre position equidistant from left and right. Instead he echoes, albeit in more ‘moderate’ tones, some of the themes of the far right.
This has become a familiar pattern throughout Europe. In France, for example, Macron defines himself as a progressive centrist against the far right, National Front and the left party, La France Insoumise. But he takes up the themes of the far right in calling for a ‘republican reconquest’ of areas inhabited by Muslims. While he occasionally seeks votes from the left against the far-right threat, he never supports the left even if they are the only candidates to face off the fascists.
McDowell follows a similar pattern. His column draws – in a softer tone – on themes that the far right love. One of their current targets is a new sex education programme in Irish schools which recognises gay and non-binary pupils. So McDowell writes that ‘Just because institutional religion is in a state of rapid social decline in Ireland does not mean that the State is empowered to fill the vacuum with its own civic religion and doctrines’.
Note the mild reference to impact of Catholic teaching in schools. It is supposedly a past issue even though the Catholic Church still controls the majority of Irish schools. Its official teaching was and still is used to attack single parents, gay people, abortion, and even contraception. But this is not a problem today, according to McDowell – the real issue is the state undermining ‘diversity’ – aka instructing Catholic run schools to stop attacking non-binary pupils.
Or look at his comments on immigration. He writes, ‘The present international protection system simply cannot deal with mass migration posing as asylum seeking. There has to be a big international rethink on conventions and law on asylum and protection.
From 2002 to 2007, McDowell was Ireland’s justice Minister.
In 2004 he introduced an Immigration Bill to remove the right on citizenship from children born in Ireland to non-Irish passport holders. In a subsequent referendum he whipped a hysteria about pregnant women coming to Ireland for ‘citizenship tourism’. He never provided figures but relied on a rhetoric that created an image of hordes of pregnant African women filing up Irish hospitals.
And while posing as a liberal centrist, McDowell did little to unravel the power of the Catholic Church when he was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
In 2006, the Equality Authority called on McDowell to change the ill-named 1998 Employment Equality Act to prevent discrimination against gay and lesbian teachers. He failed to meet this request even though the Catholic Church claims that homosexuality was ‘intrinsically disordered’ (Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, 2003)
The following year, however, he spelt out his real agenda at a Progressive Democrats conference where the invited speaker was David Quinn from the Iona Institute. The Iona Institute, a conservative Christian think tank who opposed legal protection for gay teachers.
McDowell argued that ‘The State is not there to hand out ethics. The State is not there to hand out values. It’s not there to run every school. It is the right of people to set up their own schools. It is the right of families to be moral educators.”
In other words, the Church should be let run our schools and maintain its ‘religious ethos;’
There is sometimes a notion that a neoliberal like McDowell lies at a distant point from the traditional right and far right. McDowell’s own word and record tell a different story.
The neoliberals prefer the far right as ‘useful fools’ to attack the left. They know who their real enemy is.
So should we.