Thursday 17 August 2017

'I'm grateful I didn't kill anyone when I used to drink and drive'

Transport Minister Shane Ross opens up about his relationship with alcohol, Enda Kenny and sharia law

Many spats: Transport Minister Shane Ross at Government Buildings, where he spoke candidly about his brief in Government Photo: Arthur Carron
Many spats: Transport Minister Shane Ross at Government Buildings, where he spoke candidly about his brief in Government Photo: Arthur Carron
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

A year has passed since Transport Minister Shane Ross branded Taoiseach Enda Kenny a "political corpse" in the pages of this newspaper.

The comment was made at the height of extremely difficult government-formation negotiations, and it is safe to say it didn't help matters.

Since then, there have been well-publicised spats between the de facto leader of the Independent Alliance and the Taoiseach. Of late, the relationship is much improved.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent in his ministerial office in Government Buildings last Thursday, Ross says of Kenny: "I like him, I don't know if he likes me.

"We had a difficult relationship to start with and that was probably my fault as much as his, because I think when we came into Government it was a very, very strange set-up," he adds.

As strange as it might be, a deal was done and a programme for government was signed, but the tensions did not end. Ross describes early Cabinet meetings as like "sitting down as enemies who had just negotiated a treaty".

"We weren't friends and as it was a partnership government, we were kind of looking at each other as enemies really," he adds.

For Ross, the easing of tensions came when he realised Kenny was genuinely going to help him get his judicial reform legislation over the line. He says the "relationship is now good" and even admits he will miss the Fine Gael leader when he steps down.

This newfound friendship between the former stockbroker and the longest-serving leader of Fine Gael does not mean, for the makeshift minority Government, that governing the country is without problems. At last week's Cabinet meeting, Ross and Minister for Disabilities Finian McGrath faced-off against Fine Gael over Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan's refusal to say if Ireland voted in favour of Saudi Arabia taking a seat on a UN body representing women's rights. Ross says Flanagan "obviously" voted for the Saudi Arabian government despite the country's poor record on human rights and archaic conditions endured by women under sharia law.

"You don't have to be in the Special Branch to make that calculation - that was what happened," he says.

None of the female Cabinet members, including Independent Children's Minister Katherine Zappone, raised any objection with the Government's refusal to reveal the vote. Ross says he cannot discuss what his colleagues said at Cabinet.

He says he would prefer women did not live under sharia law, especially in Ireland, but says he has no objection as long as women are willingly following an Islamic legal code and abiding by Irish laws.

"If they're living by the laws of our land I'm happy, whatever people do in private... and that is a private matter as far as I'm concerned," he says.

And how does he feel when he encounters a woman in a burka - the traditional robe-like Islamic garment that covers a woman's body and face - walking the streets of Dublin?

"I think it's quite an attractive sight, I quite like it. I kind of feel it's strange, but I think it's an interesting sight. It kind of reminds you of what's going on in the rest of the world; the conditions in which people live. I like seeing anybody who's got something different or cosmopolitan to offer, as long as they're not suffering in any way. I think it's fantastic to see that sort of diversity. I don't find it offensive," he says.

But does the minister worry these woman are being oppressed?

"Our laws don't force her to do that [wear a burka]; I think it's a different issue," he responds.

Ross, now a lawmaker, is spending much of his time seeking to push through tough drink-driving laws aimed at reducing road deaths.

His proposal to automatically disqualify people from driving for their first drink-driving offence has caused division in government and drawn criticism from the Opposition. At present, offenders can escape with three penalty points and a fine [if it is their first offence]. Ross is determined to implement stricter punishments for drink-drivers.

"For our bill, we have the support of the Road Safety Authority, we have the support of the AA, we have the support of victims' groups. All the victims' groups that I have come across are in favour of it because they see alcohol as a real danger to people on the roads. There's no doubt about that there's some political opposition all right, but from those groups and the people in charge of road safety, we've got unanimous support," he says.

He may have to approach Sinn Fein and the Labour Party to get his bill passed because they are "not prisoners" of the vintners' associations like Fianna Fail and some elements of Fine Gael.

"They [the vintners] sell alcohol and they've decided that they will oppose legislation designed to save lives. I don't understand it," he says.

"I would have thought it would have been better if they were making suggestions about making sure people would get home after drinking late at night by providing buses and accommodation, or encouraging people to come in groups where one person doesn't drink," he adds.

Ross wants to go even further with road-safety laws and introduce legislation which would ban drivers if they have any alcohol in their system when they get behind the wheel.

"I'd like to reduce it to very close to zero because the indications are - and this is a World Health Organisation statistic, not mine - that any amount of alcohol impairs.

"It's not something that people here feel palatable to accept but that's the implications, and I'd like to bring it [the limit] lower, because you save lives by stopping people drinking," he says.

Ross stopped drinking 30 years ago. He quit because, by his own admission, he was consuming too much alcohol. He couldn't function properly at work in the Seanad, where he was a senator for over two decades, or in his day job as a stockbroker. He also admits he regularly drove while over the legal limit, in his youth.

"I was lucky because I would have drunk and driven. I would have drunk to levels which are currently over the limit and driven, undoubtedly. At the time, I never had an accident, but I could have [had] and I'm very grateful that I didn't kill someone or damage someone or hurt someone," he says.

"I was waking up in the morning and I didn't have the energy to do the sort of work I should have been doing, and now that I don't drink, I find ever since that the energy is incredible," he adds.

The minister says, when he was a young man, there was a drinking culture in Leinster House that doesn't exist any more. "I could tell you stories, which I'm not going to tell you, of people, including myself, who were in situations where they wouldn't ever be in now; in conditions that they would never be in now, and certainly really prominent people who you wouldn't believe it about, and that was the way it was," he says.

He warns that one of the dangers of mixing alcohol and politics is it can bring about premature ends to political careers.

"I'm sure if you did a survey of people who lost their seats and who drank, I think quite a lot of them would have lost their seats because they were out enjoying themselves too much; there was an element of that," he says.

Ross was a prominent member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) during the last Dail term. He would regularly lock horns with public figures he believed to be misusing funds paid for from the public purse or who were overseeing bad practices.

But now, in Government, he has to bite his lip.

The perpetually under-fire Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan is facing another PAC hearing over the gross mismanagement of funds in the Garda Training College in Templemore. Opposition parties want her to step aside, but Ross is happy to express confidence in the Commissioner.

"I'm a Cabinet member and I'm bound by the Cabinet's position on this," he says. But does he personally have confidence in O'Sullivan? "Oh yes; yes, I do," he adds.

And can he understand why people who remember his days grilling officials in the PAC might question his stance on the Commissioner?

"If I were in the PAC now I would be asking her exactly the same questions the members of the PAC are asking. But the PAC haven't actually found her guilty of anything at all. They're asking all the right questions and they must do that, and I'd be doing exactly the same," he says

Does he think O'Sullivan will be able to reform the Garda?

"I don't know, we'll see what the findings are. We'll see how bad it is," he says.

And is he willing to give her the time and space to reform the force?

"I'd like to see what the PAC find; that's the most important thing first. I'm not going to make a judgment on it, just as the PAC aren't until the findings are out," he adds.

Ross's long-standing opposition to social partnership, however, has remained intact and he insists the Government should not go down this route as new public sector pay talks begin. He would also like to see public sector workers such as judges and ministers, who are entitled to "gold-plated pensions" contribute more into pension funds.

"We cannot put the economic gains in jeopardy by paying too much in public service pay, there's a balance to be addressed here," he concludes.

Sunday Independent

Also in this section