Michael McDowell and the paradox of power

Richard Delevan’s column in the Tribune serves up the complexity of the McDowell vs CPI story with some alacrity. He starts from the premise the Republic (and most republics) is founded on, ie that the people are sovereign. He accepts that McDowell may have been fully justified in protecting the state from subversive activity. But, he argues, that the people have a right to see the evidence upon which the Minister has taken his extraordinary course of action.He works out from what he argues could be an historical predessessor, that hero of the Roman Republic, Marcus Tullius Cicero:

His way with words got Cicero elected a consul of ancient Rome. He did one brave and vital thing in office. He stopped a plot led by Lucius Catilina, an ambitious nobleman, to overthrow the Republic. First Cicero, under contemporary Dail privilege, made a speech so damning that Catilina fled town. But sleeper agents were left to subvert the city from within while Catilina raised an army nearby. These conspirators sent an envoy to wild Gaul, perhaps to trade expertise in Greek fire for gold; but he was intercepted.

Using this evidence in the Senate, Cicero got the conspirators to confess and then had them sent to the Tullianum prison . . . the Abu Ghraib of its day . . . and hanged without trial. Rome honoured him. Cicero saved the Republic, which was vital. But he did it by exceeding the laws of the Republic, which was brave. Because although he said he acted within his authority, to protect the security of the state, Cicero worried that one day he would face punishment for undermining the very rule of law he secured.

This is a paradox of power.

Republics are occasionally confronted with insidious and existential threats. Meeting those threats . . . by changing, stretching or ignoring their own rules of conduct or by just hoping for the best . . . is up to the people on whose watch the crisis comes.

Asking what Cicero would have made of McDowell’s extraordinary decision to make certain otherwise confidential document available to some journalists, he says:

Cicero might first note the irony. If McDowell or his predecessors had brought Irish defamation laws up to Western standards, we’d have a full hearing in the public arena without recourse to clandestine meetings or Dail privilege. Under proper Freedom of Information rules, the files about the Colombia affair could have been opened to public scrutiny, to everyone simultaneously, including allegations about Frank Connolly.

Informed public discourse could then influence the decision of the Centre of Public Inquiry (CPI) . . . the known work of which is no more threatening than that of Ralph Nader in the US, and arguably of great benefit . . . to continue to employ Connolly and of Feeney to fund the group. And the public would give due weight to the word of a man with serious questions to answer. The sanction short of trial and prison would have been loss of credibility and money at the discretion of the whole public, not one minister.

However he suggests that the minister must now disclose all his reasons and publish his evidence: “I know what I know” simply won’t do. If this is the decisive moment to defeat whatever our current Catiline conspiracy is, if McDowell really wants to stand by the Republic, he’ll make it plain to us plebes.


Stepping outside the laws of the Republic to save it should be painful. Citing Cicero, philosopher JeanJacques Rousseau wrote that dictatorship would sometimes be necessary to repel existential threats to the state. Abraham Lincoln preserved the Union during the American Civil War, but to do it trampled on nearly every freedom and basic law he wanted to secure. What saved the US was that it did not give explicit permission for anyone to repeat Lincoln’s example. It reserved the right to judge leaders whose gambles do not work out so well. In the end, Cicero did what was necessary to save his country. And faced the consequences. He was exiled. Making space within the law for its abuse has been the end of many a republic, right back to the first one.

  • Mick,
    blinding article, makes you wonder if McDowell had in mind the depths to which his actions would be analysed. At the mention of Cicero he must be reeling. He really ought to phone Gerry Adams ( reeling from the spy drama ) and offer to go for a pint, exchange views and even sobs!
    Everyone needs a shoulder to lean on 😉

  • Richard Dowling

    Would we really be happy in in the Rome of Tertullius, Cicero
    or Marcus Aurelius? Would we embrace the slavery, grinding
    poverty or brutal application of the law on behalf of a powerful
    elite, where a dictatorship of weird leaders (worshipping a
    variety of gods) was more the norm than the exception?

    Would we have attended the Circus where Christians were fed
    to the lions for having the audacity to worship THEIR one God?

    Would we have gone along with the reality that the vast
    majority of people were totally disenfranchised , women treated
    as sex objects and whole nations subjugated to the overarching
    power of the so-called Senatus Populusque Romanum (the
    Senate and People of Rome)?

    Would we have been happy with THEIR rules of disclosure,
    freedom of conscience, levels of tolerance and protection
    under the law (other than for the very few)? I think not.

    I prefer the narrative that the Law was meant to serve man, and
    not the other way around. With the Romans, the law became a
    via dolorosa, where the Christian freedom of the Spirit (for
    example) was trampled underfoot in the name of adherence to
    the letter of the law — but only when it was expedient for those
    in power to apply it.

    It is ever this way with bullies and chancers, the modern IRA
    being just another example of those who would use the law to
    gain the power necessary to enforce their own narrative on us,
    to force their will on us, to have their way with us. But, guys, it’s
    just not going to happen. We, the people, will not allow it.

  • The premise of the article is that Cicero exceeded the remit of his office in order to squash the Catalines.

    Yeah, in your dreams pal.

    The poet was a crafty old git that accomplished everything under Senatus Consultum Ultimum, martial law to you and me, as Britannica reports it. His trouble came five years later when an enemy got the Senate to pass an ex post facto law (a damned good reason for Article 1) against the executions of the Cataline conspirators carried out by Cicero.

    Thus the entire newspaper article is based upon a false premise.

    But why Cicero and why now, it’s not as if Delevan is the only one?

    Does everyone wants to dig the old fella up? Michael Apted and Bruno Heller have him cast as Mr. Insecure for several episodes on HBO, constantly waging a constant and losing battle between his conscience and his unbridled ambition.

    And now Richard Delevan has invoked him to justify McDowell’s use of the Libel Free Zone in the Dail to whack some insignificant flea tickling a carbuncle on the backside of the Emerald Tiger. Is the reference to a classical source, no matter how false, necessary to sex up this smarmy farce?

    Moreover, must we really reach back 2000 years to find the historical parallel? Nothing REMOTELY similar has happened in our own times, right? Oh hell no.

    Say how about Joe McCarthy pipelining the raw FBI excerpts of J. Edgar Hoover’s stool pigeons, the one that were scrambling to rat out anyone to save their hides, verbatim into prime time through good old Joe’s Senate subcommittee. That can’t be exactly the same as our Michael channeling raw evidence from the Garda Síochána na hÉireann into the Dail can it?

    Why no, because yer man Michael salted the mine by giving raw evidence to the Sindo so he could be asked a question about it in the Dail and reveal all. See, McDowell really isn’t the same as Joe McCarthy, not really, he just went the Junior Senator from Wisconsin one better.

    I’ve got a better, bitter parallel for Brother Delevan: In both cases, McCarthy and McDowell, the threat was gone by the time they cranked up the slime machine. The FBI had already shattered Stalin’s spy rings and none of McCarthy’s witch hunts resulted in single conviction that later wasn’t laughed out of court on appeal. He got butkus, zero zip, nada. Brother McDowell, he has gotten all frisky and has become Mr. Attitude now that the IRA has gotten rid of it’s death-dealing arsenal and is no more of a threat to the state than The Dancin’ Priest. Discretion is by far the better part of valor in the Oireachtais.

  • Richard Dowling

    A more telling historical analogy would be to compare the
    Centre for Public Inquiry (in actual fact, a quite PRIVATE body)
    with the Puritan elders of Salem Witch Trials infamy. These
    stalwarts used every trick in the book (including the blatant
    misuse of children’s vurnerability to suggestion) to further their
    own cleverly disguised agendas.

    But since Mr Delevan has brought up the the old Roman
    narrative, it might be timely to remind people that Marcus
    Tullius Cicero was a thoroughly indecent anti-Jewish bigot,
    whose opportunism was matched by many within the ruling
    Roman elite (on its journey from Republic to Empire). And by
    the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire, a thoroughly
    indecent Marcus Aurelius was spouting anti-Christian
    propaganda to bolster his popular appeal.

    Plus ca change …. etc