THE rift between Michael McDowell and Mary Harney over the government's handling of the redress scheme for abuse victims has isolated the Minister for Justice within the Progressive Democrats and done severe damage to his chances of becoming the next leader of the party.

Almost all of his colleagues in the PD parliamentary party were dismayed by McDowell's decision to publicly distance himself from the terms of the government's deal with the religious congregations on the redress scheme when the political pressure came on the government last week.

"Whatever was happening in the background, McDowell never told the cabinet he had reservations about the deal with the religious and he signed off on it without demur, " said one minister.

McDowell publicly declared last week that he told the Taoiseach and the former minister for education, Michael Woods, last January about his unhappiness at the way he had been excluded from the negotiations on the deal.

However, the Tánaiste Mary Harney was adamant that the government was collectively responsible for the deal.

"It was collective responsibility in relation to this issue and I stand over that. I believe that all of the facts were given to the government in a meeting in April and June of 2002.

We based our decisions on those facts." Colleagues in the PDs believe that McDowell was provoked into publicly distancing himself from the government because of jibes in the Dáil from Labour leader Pat Rabbitte claiming that he was up a lamp post when the crucial decision was made in June last year.

The episode has not only soured relations between the two PD ministers but has left McDowell isolated within the party. Almost all of his 10 parliamentary party colleagues believe the minister should not have done a solo run on the issue.

McDowell has long been regarded as the favourite to become party leader whenever Harney decides to step down.

However, colleagues recently began to question his political judgement as he become embroiled in one controversy after another and the latest episode has marginalised him even further.

Under current rules, the next leader will be selected by the parliamentary party although the PDs are examining the possibility of opening it up to the membership.

Junior minister Tom Parlon, has indicated that he will be a candidate when the job becomes vacant, and former minister Liz O'Donnell is another likely contender.