By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A political darkhorse, the government’s chief law officer, Attorney General David Byrne, has emerged as Ireland’s new EU commissioner and opened the way for the Progressive Democrats’ Michael McDowell to emerge from the wilderness and take a seat at the cabinet table.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s decision to put the virtually unknown Byrne on the plane to Brussels as commissioner for health, consumer protection and food safety, replacing him with McDowell, is a coup for Tanaiste Mary Harney and will no doubt help solidify her relationship with the taoiseach.
Byrne beat the widely tipped former Justice Minister Maire Geoghegan-Quinn and Health Minister Brian Cowen for the £150,000-plus Brussels job.
McDowell’s appointment means Harney will have a powerful ally at the top table. With only four TDs in the party, the PDs now have three full cabinet representatives and a junior minister.
Byrne, who’s 52 and a barrister, is a political unknown who has never held elected office before Ahern appointed him in June 1997.
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As the government’s legal adviser, he has been closely involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, overseeing the extensive legal and constitutional changes needed to set up the new institutions.
Despite his lack of political experience, Byrne is trusted by political leaders. He is due to start his five-year term on the 20-member commission on Sept. 20 when he succeeds former Fianna Fail Minister Padraig Flynn, who has been social affairs commissioner.
Byrne, who is married with two sons and a daughter, has been active in politics since Ireland joined the European Community in 1972.
He first became a close friend of Ahern when they worked together during the 1990 Irish presidential election. That election was a disaster for Fianna Fail. Their candidate, the late Brian Lenihan, was eventually fired as Tanaiste by Taoiseach Charles Haughey and Mary Robinson swept into office.
Byrne’s appointment follows the precedent set by former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, who named his attorney general, Peter Sutherland, as EU Commissioner in 1985.
Narrowly beaten by Green TD John Gormley in Dublin in the 1997 election, McDowell was a major loss to the PDs, who considered him one of their leading ideologues.
He had turned down an appointment as senator and returned to practice at the bar. Becoming attorney general has fulfilled a life-long ambition.
Christened the PD’s rottweiler, McDowell will be working closely with Ahern and most interest will center on how the betimes abrasive and outspoken senior counsel will take to traditional backroom role of attorney general.