Shane Ross says 'free vote in the Dáil will save lives' as he faces showdown over tougher drink-driving laws
Transport Minister Shane Ross has said that a free vote in the Dáil over a new drink-driving bill will save lives, as he faces a showdown over his new proposals.
Shane Ross told RTÉ's Morning Ireland that the new bill, aimed at reducing drink-driving offences, will now see anyone over the limit automatically disqualified from driving.
"People who have been able to escape the fifty milligrams limit, which is the limit for drink-driving, were able to escape if they're first time offenders.
"They've been able to get away with just three penalty points. Those people will have the option now of taking three months off the road.
"Everybody will be disqualified if they are over the limit."
The Transport Minister last night confirmed that he will push for a free vote on the measures, which have been labelled "anti-rural" by some TDs.
"The Independent Alliance believes in a free vote. Cabinet members of our group have had reservations about this as well."
He added that his colleagues Kevin Boxer Moran and Sean Canney haven't said that they won't support him.
"They didn't say they wouldn't support it. They said they have reservations about the bill but that isn't the reason why we're doing it. We're doing a free vote because of a large number of issues."
Mr Ross said that he welcomes debate on the issue.
"Every single single group and body is made of different views on every single issue. That's democracy and we welcome that.
"This bill would be passed by the Dáil if there was a free vote on it."
As previously revealed by the Irish Independent, several Fine Gael ministers and Independent minister Denis Naughten have strong reservations surrounding the proposals.
"We're not a political party. People expect us to whip everybody into line, we don't do that," Mr Ross told Morning Ireland.
"We have the majority in favour of this measure and others have reservations. They come from areas that will be affected and a fully understand that. We're looking for the Dail to have a free vote."
He said that Fine Gael TDs having a free vote is "a matter for Leo Varadkar".
"The more the merrier. I'd like to see Fianna Fail and Fine Gael being given a free vote and save lives."
Fianna Fail spokesperson Robert Troy previously called the measure "lazy" and said there was no evidence to suggest that the new bill would save lives.
Speaking on Today with Sean O’Rourke, Deputy Troy questioned Minister Ross's commitment to the Bill.
He said it is hypocritical of him to push for a free vote for his Independent Alliance colleagues on the issue.
"It is not a matter of conscience and I think it is quite hypocritical of the Minister to come on calling for a free vote on an issue. If he has the courage of his conviction he should be able to bring his own Independent colleagues along with him in relation to the proposals that he himself is bringing to cabinet."
Deputy Troy said it is important to note that a significant number of people caught for drink drinking are for those who were in excess of the 80mg, who are currently disqualified for driving.
"What we want to see is proper enforcement of the existing legislation."
However, speaking earlier on the same programme, Minister Ross dismissed Mr Troy's comments as "nonsense".
"That's complete nonsense. I don't believe that Michael Martin could possible believe that either. He was one of the people who proudly took on the tobacco industry. He won't be swallowing the lines that this won't make any difference.
"There are plenty of statistics. This is a serious problem. Alcohol and driving is a big problem."
He said that in the past four years, there has been a 38 per cent increase in the number of fatal accidents caused by drink driving.
"Anybody who says that traffic enforcement isn't a problem is wrong. Enforcement, alcohol and speeding are all parts of the equation. Enforcement is stepping up quite considerably in the past few months. It's going up by at least 10 pc this year."
He added that he will enforce to his colleagues that the number of road deaths and arrests due to alcohol are increasing.
"Reducing road deaths can be helped considerably by this measure. Insisting that disqualification is imposed on all people over the limit. There is no-one that gets off."
Privately, the Irish Independent revealed that senior Independent Alliance sources said the matter has not yet been discussed between Mr Ross and Mr Varadkar and that the prospect of a free vote remains up in the air.
While the bill is supported by Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil says it will vote against the measures unless they are significantly changed.
This means the support of Fine Gael is crucial to the proposals being passed.
Other Fine Gael politicians, such as Brian Hayes MEP, have said Mr Ross is "doing the right thing" by clamping down on drink driving in this fashion.
On the prospect of a free vote, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said last night: "There is no decision on whether to allow a free vote on the Bill.
"No decision will be taken until the Dáil debate commences in the autumn."
Meanwhile, Mr Ross and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney are also due to bring proposals to Cabinet surrounding the issue of mutual recognition of driver disqualification.
Mr Ross wants to bring clarity to cases whereby drivers who hold an Irish licence are disqualified in the UK, and vice versa.
There has been confusion surrounding these cases since the UK pulled out of an EU directive in 2014.
Government sources said the issue of mutual recognition also needs to be clarified in light of Brexit.