Michael McDowell was the first candidate elected to the NUI panel of Seanad Éireann with over 5,000 first preference votes, on a platform to reform the Seanad, following his participation in the successful grassroots ‘Democracy Matters’ campaign. This campaign saw the referendum to abolish the Seanad defeated. In the first weeks of the Seanad, McDowell published a Bill containing all of the Manning Seanad reform proposals and is pushing for the Bill to pass through the remaining stages in the House. He is part of the third largest grouping in the Seanad. This group comprises independent senators who have worked as a collective in establishing the Seanad as a chamber to inquire into both the consequences of BREXIT as well as develop concrete solutions and, while remaining independent, cooperates on the Senators agenda and business.
McDowell succeeded Mary Harney as Tánaiste after becoming leader of the Progressive Democrats. He remained Minister of Justice while serving as Tánaiste. Known for his straight talking, McDowell as Tánaiste and leader of the Progressive Democrats was a strong opponent of any attempt by the IRA to combine crime with politics and was critical of the failure of Sinn Féin leadership to publicly acknowledge the roles they played in the illegal organisation.
As Minister for Justice, McDowell published the first reforming legislation of An Garda Síochána since 1924 replacing all acts that governed the Garda Síochána up to that date. The Garda Síochána Act 2005 established the first ever Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Garda Inspectorate and the Garda Reserve. It set out for the first time in law the functions and objectives of the Garda and also established the Garda Commissioner as the Accounting Officer for the Garda Síochána, ensuring accountability to the Dáil and the Committee of Public Accounts. During his time as Minister, he introduced major reform Bills to immigration, anti-terrorism and gangland laws. He also introduced targeted legislation at alcohol usage, particularly binge drinking by young people, introduced the Land and Conveyancing Bill and he reformed defamation law in Ireland. He played a major role in securing all party agreement in Northern Ireland at the St. Andrews talks in 2006.
McDowell was appointed Attorney General in July 1999 and served for a period of 3 years. The Attorney General is the legal advisor to the Government of Ireland and by tradition, the guardian of the public interest. During his period as Attorney General, he defended part Part V of the Planning and Development Bill 1999 which had been referred to the Supreme Court by the President. The Supreme Court had to consider whether a provision within that Bill was constitutional. This provision made the attachment of conditions to planning permissions requiring the applicant for planning permission to make available land for the purpose of social and affordable housing, The State, represented by the Attorney General successfully argued that it was constitutional and so the Bill was signed into law. He was Attorney General when the Good Friday Agreement became operational.
In 1987, Michael McDowell was elected along with 13 other members in the first ever election fought by the Progressive Democrats, a first of its kind in post-civil war Irish politics. That Dáil was short-lived and after losing his seat in 1989, it wasn’t until 1992 that he regained his seat for the now Dublin Bay South constituency. He topped the poll in the 2002 general election. McDowell remained as chairman of the party during his period outside of the Dáil and presided over a party that advocated a form of economic liberalism that subsequently become the mainstay of the middle ground in Irish politics.