His hostile gesture may yet have more far-reaching consequences than he could ever imagine.
Saturday December 31 2005
This was the year when the gangland killers became more clinical - coldly dispatching their victims in a businesslike fashion, sometimes in full view of ordinary people going about their daily lives.
November and April were significant low points. Both months saw a spate of gang murders as a new and deadlier breed of urban drug pushers went about systematically wiping each other out.
With the number of gang killings for the year tipping 20, concerns are again being voiced that organised crime - especially the highly lucrative drug networks operating out of certain Dublin suburbs - will never be eliminated.
The drug turf wars reached a nadir in mid-November when three members of rival gangs from the Crumlin and Drimnagh areas were killed in two callously executed attacks. The killings displayed a businesslike ferocity which has rarely been seen previously.
In the first, Darren Geoghegan (26) and Gavin Byrne (30) were shot to death in their car on a Sunday night in a residential street at Firhouse. They were apparently lured to the scene by their killers. The attack brought the death toll in the feud to six.
Forty-eight hours later, drug dealer Noel Roche (27), was shot and killed in the passenger seat of a car which had stopped at traffic lights on the Clontarf Road. He had reportedly earlier been at a Phil Collins concert at The Point, but left after becoming alarmed at seeing somebody in the crowd. He was the second in command of one of the warring factions. In March, his brother John was gunned down in Kilmainham - killed, gardai believe, by Darren Geoghegan.
In May, the killers showed they could operate with impunity in broad daylight. Drug dealer Mark Byrne (29) was clinically gunned down as he walked down a busy city street. Just minutes earlier, he had left Mountjoy Prison on temporary release.
Also in May, gardai lying in wait shot dead Colm Griffin (33) and Eric Hopkins (24) during an attempted robbery at Lusk post office in north Co Dublin.
As the year's body count mounted, Minister McDowell was forced to admit that he was wrong in his prediction that the gangs were on the way out. He withdrew his comment, made after a gangland murder in west Dublin in late 2004. The killing in question appeared to signal the end of the notorious Westies gang. At the time, the Minister described it as "the sting of a dying wasp".
However by November 2005, after three gang assassinations in as many days, he acknowledged that this earlier analysis had been "over-optimistic". He admitted he hadn't reckoned on the emergence of other rival gangs who were just as lethal and quick to kill.
The frightening ability of the Dublin gang scene to renew and regenerate itself was summed up in more colourful terms by one senior garda officer. Describing the crime situation in certain parts of the city, he said: "It's like trying to clear out a house infested with rats. As soon as we have things under control in one area, something happens in another."
In the Dail, Fine Gael Justice spokesman Jim O'Keeffe spoke of "a tide of lawlessness" sweeping Dublin's streets and warned that the city was getting "like Chicago in the 1930s". But true to form, the Minister refused to cede any ground to the new drug lords.
He announced that a special 50-strong team of detectives was being sent out to prevent further bloodshed. The new unit would focus exclusively on the crime gangs in a very direct way. Its brief was to "sit on" known gang members, monitor their activities, find out who they were associating with and, where possible, disrupt their criminal operations.
Mr McDowell also signalled the government's intent by announcing in the estimates an extra €146m for the gardai, a 13% funding increase. He said this would enable the government to meet its target of 14,000 gardai and recruits by the end of 2006, with the emphasis on frontline policing.
The Minister also scotched the notion that as long as the gangsters confined themselves to killing each other, it didn't really involve or effect the rest of society. "We have to be clear," he told the Dail, "that murder is murder. And regardless of motive, the gardai are determined to do all in their power to bring the perpetrators of these and similar offences to justice."
A feature of the capital's gang network is that some of the criminal groupings are quite small - literally no more than a handful of people. But they are willing and able to protect their lucrative cocaine and heroin dealing operations with ruthless and lethal efficiency. This was particularly evident in the Crumlin feud where the warring factions used to be partners.
There was speculation that a number of recent killings may have been the work of hired ex-republican assassins. Certainly the professional manner of some of the high-profile slayings suggests they were carried out by experienced operators.
The recent interception of booby-trap bombs, apparently destined to explode beneath rival gangsters' cars, also appears to indicate the involvement of former paramilitaries.
Of course, the drug gang killings weren't entirely confined to Dublin. One of Cork's most notorious drug figures, Michael 'Danser' Ahern (38) died in gruesome circumstances in southern Portugal - the apparent victim of an international turf war. He was beaten and shot four times in the head before his body was hidden in a freezer in a luxury apartment.
The killing with the biggest impact of all in 2005 also occurred outside the jurisdiction. The stabbing of Robert McCartney outside a Belfast bar on a Sunday evening in January caused massive political reverberations on both sides of the border.
It was also the year when anti-social behaviour by young louts finally made it on to the national agenda. As the year comes to an end, wanton vandalism and aggression by youngsters continue to ruin the quality of life of countless ordinary citizens throughout Ireland.
New measures to curb the most serious of these offences - including anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) - are proposed by Minister McDowell in legislation currently before the Oireachtas.
But the gun image which most people will remember from 2005 had nothing to so with gangland killings. It was the photograph of grinning Defence Minister Willie O'Dea, on a visit to the Curragh army camp, pointing a handgun at press photographers. His little joke could hardly have been more badly timed - coming the day after the latest fatal shooting in Dublin.
Given the mayhem which firearms have wreaked in his own native Limerick, it was a particularly ill-judged gesture.
Back on the killing streets of Dublin, few people have any realistic expectation that gang crime can be eliminated. The best that anyone - including the gardai - can hope for is some kind of limited containment.