Sunday 25 August 2019

Finian McGrath apologises 'unreservedly' for controversial remarks on drink-driving crackdown

Finian McGrath
Finian McGrath

Philip Ryan and Cormac McQuinn

Cabinet minister Finian McGrath has apologised “unreservedly” to the families of road accident victims and the gardaí in the wake of his controversial remarks on the enforcement of the drink-driving crackdown.

A statement this evening came in the wake of calls for him to resign over the comments where he claimed gardaí had become politicised.

Mr McGrath said: “I am aware that my comments regarding the gardaí and drink driving have caused hurt to families and victims who continue to suffer the consequences of drink driving.

“It was never my intention to cause pain and I wish to unreservedly apologise to them and also to our gardaí.”

He added: “Families and victims suffering the aftermath of drink driving have always been my priority.

“I voted for and fully support the legislation which automatically disqualifies any motorist found to have consumed alcohol.”

He said he has also supported transport minster Shane Ross who brought in the “vital legislation” in the face of criticism from some quarters. 

Mr McGrath added: “I will continue to support all road safety initiatives and measures.”

His comments come after road safety campaigner Aisling Reid of PARC road safety group called on him to resign over his controversial remarks.

Ms Reid said: “It is disgraceful what he said. It was shocking. Withdrawing his statement is not enough, he should resign."

She made the comments on RTÉ Radio's Seán O'Rourke Show.

The comments come after it was revealed that cabinet minister Finian McGrath’s career is hanging in the balance after he sparked outrage over his claim that gardaí had become politicised.

Senior Fine Gael ministers were furious with Mr McGrath’s accusation that gardaí were carrying out unnecessary breathalyser check-points because they opposed controversial new drink-driving laws.

Even after he retracted the remarks, made in an interview with the ‘Sunday Independent’, Cabinet ministers were insisting the Independent Alliance minister should not “expect everyone to forget” his comments.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he believes Mr McGrath's withdrawal of the remarks brings an end to the matter.

Mr Coveney said: "I think they were remarks that probably shouldn't have been made. Finian recognises that. He's withdrawn them. We have bigger issues to move on with at this stage."

Earlier, Fianna Fáil's justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan said Mr McGrath would have had to consider his position if he had not withdrawn the comments.

However, he said Mr McGrath still needs to apologise for the remarks.

It was put to Fine Gael minister Richard Bruton by Mr O'Rourke that the remarks make Mr McGrath unfit to be in Cabinet.

Mr Bruton replied: "I don't agree.

"Finian is a very passionate person, committed to reform.

"He's done a huge amount of work for people with a disability.

"But like any of us he can make mistakes and he's been man enough to admit that this was a mistake and withdraw it and express his confidence in the Gardaí and say how he was wrong to have said this.

"I accept that fully from Finian."

Mr Bruton said he has full confidence in Mr McGrath and argued that the statement he made withdrawing his comments amounted to an apology because he said he was wrong and the Gardaí are doing a good job.

Meanwhile, one senior minister said the Disabilities Minister’s comments “should not be tolerated” by the Government.

“You can’t hold such appalling and ridiculous and insulting views on Saturday afternoon and then just change your mind on Sunday afternoon,” the minister said.

Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) chief John Jacob said the “disparaging” remarks had effectively placed gardaí enforcing the law in a “no-win situation” that left them “damned if we do and damned if we don’t”.

An Garda Síochána refused to comment directly on Mr McGrath’s remarks but insisted it was a “non-­political organisation” whose function is to keep people safe.

Mr McGrath was publicly reprimanded by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who branded the comments “bizarre” and “dangerous”.

Transport Minister and fellow Independent Shane Ross was silent.

Mr McGrath was last night forced into an embarrassing climbdown after he came under massive pressure from Fine Gael and his Independent Alliance colleagues saying he was "wrong".

He had claimed in a 'Sunday Independent' interview that gardaí's implementation of the drink-driving crackdown, introduced by his Independent Alliance TD and Transport Minister Shane Ross, has been "over the top".

Mr McGrath also called on Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to "de-politicise" the force.

He said gardaí should always be "non-political" but claimed they are now blaming Mr Ross for new drink-driving laws when they are stopping motorists at checkpoints.

"That is being said at checkpoints. That's not good enough. That would not be tolerated in any other profession," he said.

It prompted Mr Flanagan to label his comments as "unwise, even dangerous".

Junior Fine Gael minister Patrick O'Donovan demanded that Mr McGrath withdraw his comments.

Mr McGrath initially stood over the remarks but later did a massive U-turn, it is understood after coming under pressure from the Independent Alliance.

He maintained: "Nobody is more supportive of the work An Garda Síochána does - often in tough circumstances - than I am."

He said his comments were "prompted by concerns raised with me over the past number of weeks".

But he acknowledged the concerns and that his claim of political policing in the enforcement of drink-driving regulations was "wrong", saying: "I am happy to withdraw my comments."

However, there is fury in Fine Gael over what one source branded "a misguided attempt to gain a bit of publicity for himself that has backfired spectacularly".

There has also been criticism from Fianna Fáil with justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan saying it was "extraordinary for a Government minister to state that he believes gardaí are involved in a political campaign to damage certain members of the Government".

He said it this was true it would constitute a "serious threat to our democracy".

The AGSI's general secretary John Jacob said he was happy Mr McGrath had withdrawn his "disparaging remarks" but said he couldn't understand how the minister would ever consider gardaí to be politicised.

"We're tasked with enforcing the law impartially and we do that on a daily basis... we're damned if we do and damned if we don't it appears.

"If we don't enforce the legislation and there's an accident we'll be asked why we weren't more proactive," he said.

"When we are proactive we're told we're over-active. It's a no-win situation".

He said gardaí would be disappointed that a minister would make such remarks.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section