The revelations about the involvement of former Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall with the IRA and some of the most vicious elements of the Dublin criminal underworld should give voters some pause for thought about where Irish democracy could be heading.
It has become a truism in political commentary that the electorate simply does not care about the moral or political implications of the violence and mayhem perpetrated by the IRA in the decades before the Belfast Agreement and justified to this day by Sinn Féin.
Over the past few weeks, however, the disclosures about the involvement of Dowdall with gangland boss Gerry Hutch has lifted the veil on a dark corner of Irish life.
It has emerged during the trial of Hutch – for the murder of David Byrne, a member of the rival Kinahan gang at the Regency Hotel in 2016 – at the Special Criminal Court that Dowdall was secretly recorded claiming Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald used the Hutch crime family for money and votes. Dowdall was speaking to Hutch in a conversation that was recorded by gardaí and played in court. McDonald has denied the allegation. She has professed shock at the disclosures saying that had she known about Dowdall’s activities “he wouldn’t have been anywhere near me or anybody else”.
It was already on the record that in 2011 Dowdall, who owned a firm that installed security and alarm systems, gave a contribution of €1,000 to McDonald to use in her successful Dáil election campaign that year. He was subsequently elected as a councillor for Sinn Féin in 2014 but resigned his seat after less than a year.
In March 2016, shortly after the Regency Hotel shooting, armed gardaí raided Dowdall’s house and seized documents, electronics and his BMW car. On a USB drive taken from the house, gardaí found a January 2015 video of Dowdall and his father waterboarding and threatening a man whom they accused of trying to scam them. This led to both men receiving lengthy jail terms for kidnapping and assault in 2017.
Dowdall was subsequently charged with involvement in the Regency Hotel shooting and has now agreed to give evidence for the State.
The episode has put McDonald on the defensive and subjected her to some unaccustomed media scrutiny. Mind you it has still been nothing like the attention that would apply to a politician of any other party in a similar situation.
“Had a Fine Gael leader taken €1,000 donation from a gangland criminal and torturer, all would want to know, right down to last cent, what happened that money – and quite right,” commented Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll McNeill, who pointed out that Dowdall’s waterboarding offence took place when he was actually a Sinn Féin councillor in January 2015.
The deeper issue raised by the whole affair is the continuing existence of the IRA as a serious force in the criminal underworld, as disclosed in the evidence about the meetings Dowdall drove Hutch to on both sides of the border.
The attendance of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill as prominent mourners at the paramilitary style funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey at the height of Covid in 2020 was just one reminder
This should not surprise people who claim to pay close attention to politics. Back in 2004 when the IRA was finally on the verge of decommissioning its arsenal, as a step towards facilitating the involvement of Sinn Féin in the power-sharing executive at Stormont, there were intensive discussions about a set of commitments to democratic values that the organisation would be required to make.
They were hammered out in talks between the Irish and British governments and Sinn Féin but the one demand that was initially resisted was an end to IRA criminality. Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were prepared to concede on this point but due to the insistence of then Minister for Justice Michael McDowell an IRA commitment not to engage in criminality was finally included in the package.
The Northern Bank robbery, which followed shortly after, raised questions about how serious that commitment was. In the years since then IRA criminal activity has not gone away but pin-pointing it has been made difficult by the seemingly porous relationship between the Provisional, Real and Continuity factions.
That is why the Dowdall revelations have come as such a reality check not just for Sinn Féin but for the Irish public, a large segment of which seems willing to turn a blind eye to past violence and put its trust in a party that makes no secret of its links to the IRA.
The attendance of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill as prominent mourners at the paramilitary-style funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey at the height of Covid in 2020 was just one reminder of those links.
In recent times some leading Irish business figures, as well as representatives of multinationals, have been beating a path to McDonald’s door in an effort to ingratiate themselves with the political leader they believe to be Ireland’s future. It is probably no surprise that business does not care very much about the health of our democratic system, but the Hutch trial has given the public a timely wake-up call.