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01st January 2008

Michael McDowell Visits Exeter

Written by Edward Anderson

A man who has been a constitutional lawyer, Minister for Justice and Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) of the Republic of Ireland, and a leader of the Progressive Democrat Party can probably admit to being called a lot of things. In Michael McDowell’s case, these have included Charles Haughey’s famous taunt that he was “the nastiest piece of goods that has ever crawled into this house”. Given that Haughey was once described as an ‘Irish Peron’ this should probably be taken as a complement.

On his visit to Exeter College however, McDowell was nothing short of charming, and his talk, which covered Ireland’s politics from as far back as 1918, delightfully clear and insightful.

For McDowell, the situation in Ireland was reminiscent of a ptarmigan’s plumage; it changes to white to adapt to the snow, but take away the snow and its future is doomed. The same, he believed, could be said of the Irish terrorists; the events of 9–11 made violence ‘no longer tenable’ as a political act, and those responsible for it, ‘almost completely isolated’. This, combined with the disappearance of heavy industry has, according to McDowell, fed a situation in which hopes for a united Ireland, or at the very least a proper realisation of the Belfast Agreement, seem optimistic and unimpeded. ‘The notion of the Spartans and the Helots’, said McDowell, ‘is certainly going.’

The talk, which was followed by some demanding questions from the audience, probably taught everyone something they did not know about Irish politics. Rather than unconvinced, McDowell’s audience seemed to leave the talk feeling both informed and optimistic; a united Ireland, not a dream, but a tangible, practical option.

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