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Sunday 24 March 2019

Doubt over drink-drive plan as FF TDs revolt

Dempsey in shouting match at meeting over bid to cut limit

Aine Kerr and Fionnan Sheahan

CONTROVERSIAL government plans to reduce the drink-driving limit were thrown into doubt last night after Fianna Fail backbenchers lashed out over the proposals.

Transport Minister Noel Dempsey faced a barrage of criticism from his party's TDs over the new road safety clampdown -- with some threatening to vote against the legislation.

The rebellion resulted in confusion over whether the long-running plans to make it illegal to drive after drinking a pint of beer or a glass of wine will ever come into force.

Up to 25 backbenchers spoke out against Mr Dempsey's plan, including Cork South West TD, Christy O'Sullivan, who lost his licence last year for 12 months after being found 8mg over the 80mg limit.

And despite the Cabinet previously signing off on the Road Traffic Bill, none of the ministers in attendance actually spoke in favour of the changes.

Among the TDs to speak against the move were Mattie McGrath from Tipperary South, Bobby Aylward from Carlow-Kilkenny, Brendan Kenneally from Waterford, Michael Mulcahy from Dublin North-Central, Michael Moynihan from Cork North-West, Noel Treacy from Galway East and Chris Andrews from Dublin South-East.

The row gave Taoiseach Brian Cowen a fresh headache ahead of the forthcoming Budget, when Fianna Fail TDs will be expected to vote for up to €4bn worth of cutbacks.

Mr Cowen appealed to both sides to go away and reflect on the proposed changes, after Mr Dempsey had ended up in a shouting match with a party backbencher opposed to the change.

"The meeting was on fire. It was the worst I have ever attended," a veteran party TD said. "Cowen was there. Dempsey made his presentation. It was all statistics. They were attacking the whole thing. I have never seen it so bad."

During the meeting, Mr Cowen said the proposed legislation was a proportionate response, and his spokesman later insisted the Taoiseach supported Mr Dempsey.

"The Taoiseach made it clear he supports the Government's position on it. Absolutely," his spokesman said.

The Green Party said it was "fully supportive of lowering the limit".

Environment Minister and Green Party leader John Gormley said he understood the objections of backbenchers. However, he said the issue was too serious to be compromised.

The Taoiseach pointed to the compromise in the bill of those just over the new limit facing penalty points and fines, instead of being banned from the road.

The proposed drink-driving limit would be a blood-alcohol level of 50mg -- down from the current limit of 80mg.

Those caught just above the new limit, between 50mg and 80mg, will be hit with six penalty points and a €200 fine for a first offence.

Punishment

Under the new regime, a driver caught between 80mg and 100mg, will get a six-month ban and €400 fine if they plead guilty and don't push to go to court. If the motorist goes to court and gets found guilty there will be a one-year ban.

Cork South West TD, Christy O'Sullivan, told backbenchers he had had no chip on his shoulder over what happened to him personally, had never challenged his case, and accepted his punishment.

However, he said as a TD representing a very rural part of the country, he could not support changes which would ban locals from having a drink in their local pub.

The changes would criminalise members of the public for a social routine to which they are long accustomed, he is reported to have said.

Tipperary South TD Mattie McGrath who led the opposition to the changes in recent weeks asked Mr Dempsey to consider putting in place mandatory drink and drugs testing at all accident scenes, while research is done on alcohol blood limit levels.

Only two TDs were reported to have spoken in favour of the changes: Cavan-Monaghan's Rory O'Hanlon and Dublin North's Michael Kennedy.

One Dublin-based TD said Mr Dempsey had deliberately backed himself into a tight corner, knowing the stakes were so high that backbenchers would have to vote for the changes in order to save their seats.

One fuming TD claimed Mr Dempsey's "stubborn" stance was "outrageous".

"Unless he rows back, there's going to be a good few of us voting against this. It's that serious," the TD said. Another rural-based TD said Mr Dempsey had "gotten the backs up of backbenchers".

"It was a hot and heavy meeting. It was very fractured ... I've had cabinet colleagues ask me the same question: Why is Dempsey pursuing this now?"

If a compromise is not found, it will "drive a wedge" in the party. Another TD said: "We've been asked to reflect but Dempsey has no intention of listening to us. This is all ego-driven."

"There was a touch of arrogance to him. He was just thick-skinned throughout it," the TD said.

Irish Independent

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