Dissenting voices of David Begg and Michael McDowell can spice up Seanad race

From opposite ends of the idealogical spectrum, the two powerful figures would bring a wealth of experience to the Seanad, writes Kyran Fitzgerald. 

Dissenting voices of David Begg and Michael McDowell can spice up Seanad race

Two leading figures of the past generation, David Begg and Michael McDowell, will be competing against each other for NUI seats in the Seanad.

The two come from quite different ideological traditions. They would bring plenty of experience to a chamber where the quality of debate has not always reached the summit.

Mr Begg is a committed social democrat who served between 2001 and 2015 as secretary general of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. He is an advocate of the Nordic model of governance and has just published a book entitled, ‘Ireland, Small Open Economies and European Integration’.

He has been variously described as “intellectually gifted, articulate and unassuming” and as a “tough negotiator” who once led the Communications Workers Union into a strike against their employer An Post.

Some critics consider him to have been a little too high-minded and removed from the daily grind of wage negotiation. He has been regularly taunted by Independent Shane Ross TD.

In 2001, Begg declared that he was a “reformist, not a revolutionary”. These days, his brand of constructive reformism is out of fashion.

Michael McDowell left Fine Gael in 1985 to join the newly formed Progressive Democrats in protest over the high levels of income taxation levied by the coalition government under Garret FitzGerald.

He cut his teeth in the Dáil as Progressive Democrats finance spokesman though his political career after 1999 was spent first as attorney general, then as minister of justice.

In 2000, he looked back with pride on an economy that had rebounded on the back of tax cuts in a speech to Swords Chamber of Commerce.

In 1980s Ireland, the standard rate of tax was well over 35% and when you added in PRSI, it was over 40%.

Mr McDowell pointed to the combination of tax cuts and social partnership as the key twin engines of growth.

Under his comrade in arms Charlie McCreevy, the top rate of tax fell from 48% to 42% between 1997 and 2002 while the lower rate dropped from 26% to 20%. Then came the economic bubble.

Having taken part in coalition talks with Fianna Fáil in 1989, Mr McDowell expressed horror at the larger party’s “reliance on civil servants for policy thinking”.

Mr McCreevy failed to listen to his officials while Mr McDowell’s plan for hiving off bank regulation received the thumbs up. At the time, Mr McDowell argued that “the process of deregulation has not gone far enough”.

The Progressive Democrats man was, at least, consistent in pressing for reform of the legal system as justice minister, generating a strong reaction from among his fellow barristers and the judiciary.

His reputation for toughness on law and order overshadowed reforms which he presided over in the area of equality.

He also pushed strongly for mediation as an alternative to litigation while the commercial court came into being on his watch.

Mr Begg had to look on as the social partnership model imploded in the wake of the crisis, though the unions displayed pragmatism in accepting pay cuts under The Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act.

This approach is now coming under strain in some areas as the hard left gains a larger foothold within the movement. Ireland’s well-earned reputation for industrial peace can no longer be taken for granted.

The former Congress head accepts that social democratic parties are under pressure. However, he says many anti-establishment parties including Sinn Féin have adopted many social democratic ideas. The former union leader cites a famous slogan of the German social democrats: “As much market as possible, as much State as necessary.”

He believes that the move towards European integration is not dead though it lost much backing following enlargement in 2004, a development that resulted in a dilution in the subsidies on offer to other member states.

His real concern is the way the plan for European convergence is being led by the pro-austerity faction of economists from Germany and he argues that the IDA has, if anything, too big a grip on industrial policy.

In his view, Enterprise Ireland “has never developed out of the shadow of the IDA”. The agency can play a strong role in ensuring the sort of balanced industrial development that Ireland lacks, he insists.

Mr Begg has visited countries such as Finland which in spite of its current difficulties has developed a well- embedded local technology sector.

He believes the State here can play a role in developing “national champions”. He does not believe, however, the current foreign direct investment model can be easily cast away. He remains a pragmatist.

Michael McDowell, meanwhile, is back on his charger, courting the student vote with the backing of former UCC historian John A Murphy.

The Dublin lawyer retains a strong interest in the economy while tempering his libertarian stances of old with a stress on the need for a balanced budget.

He has a healthy distrust of the Merrion Street mandarins, arguing that Finance Department officials still view entrepreneurs and the self employed as birds there to be plucked.

He would cut capital gains tax from its current 33% rate (having persuaded his old comrade, Mr McCreevy to cut it to 20% in the early years of the FF/PD government. Nowadays, he does not have a target rate.

Mr McDowell has commercial rates in his sight seeing them as a main factor behind business closures in towns.

Cuts here would be paid for by widening the base for local charges, but allowing for equity through the introduction of a UK-style banded system for properties. This would ensure that people in larger cities affected by surging values would be less affected.

He argues for a reform of local government with a greater role for elected representatives and a greater focus on control of spending.

As for his philosophy, he says he is no Godzilla. “I see myself as a liberal reformist republican.”

He did not back Lucinda Creighton’s Renua, in part because of its association with pro-life groups and US-style ‘three strikes and you’re out’ measures, and in part because of a 23% flat tax proposal which he views as unrealistic.

Mr McDowell has repositioned himself closer to the centre, but retains many of his core beliefs.

The returning prodigal has one unexpected champion.

In David Begg’s view, he is “an excellent potential candidate for the Seanad. You need to get that distillation of ideas”.

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