Colette Browne: Why the Healy-Rae brothers deserve a toast - not hysterical criticism
The level of smug condescension directed at the Healy-Raes reached epidemic proportions last week when the Kerry TDs had the temerity to question the effectiveness of new drink-driving legislation proposed by Transport Minister Shane Ross.
To listen to some of the more hysterical criticism, one could be forgiven for thinking that Danny Healy-Rae wants to abolish drink driving laws altogether. Speaking at an Oireachtas Transport Committee last week, he had the gall to query whether changing the penalty for drink driving offences would prove to be the panacea for road deaths that Mr Ross suggested it would be.
Currently, those found to be driving with a blood-alcohol level of between 50mg and 80mg per 100ml receive three penalty points and a €250 fine for a first offence. Mr Ross wants to change this and impose a mandatory three-month disqualification for anyone who falls into this category. Doing so, he said, would save 35 lives over the next five years.
It was a line that was picked up by the media and repeated verbatim in news reports throughout the week. The only problem is that it is wrong.
According to Mr Ross's own figures, between 2008 and 2012, 35 people died in collisions in which drivers were found to have blood alcohol levels of between 21mg and 80g. However, of this number, just 16 were in the 50mg to 80mg range - meaning that 19 deaths involved drivers who were not above the legal limit of 50mg. Even if the law was changed, those drivers would not face any penalty.
The statistic is also misleading as it seems to imply that driving with a blood alcohol level of between 50mg and 80mg is legal and consequence-free. It's not. Mr Ross's legislation changes the penalty that applies to those drivers, it doesn't lower the legal limit. So, to suggest that it would abolish every road death in which alcohol at this level had been consumed seems fanciful at best.
While it may not be very scientific, the figure was useful in at least one respect - it allowed those TDs opposed to the legislation to be depicted as heartless cretins more concerned about their own electoral fortunes than the safety of citizens.
It also provided yet another excuse for the caricature of the Healy-Rae brothers as knuckle-dragging oiks, who occasionally emerge from a cave in Kerry to spout raméis in Leinster House, to be dusted off by supercilious journalists.
Danny Healy-Rae made a lengthy contribution at the committee last week, but the line plucked out by journalists was his contention that "do-gooders will not let us cut the bushes" and "pedestrians are walking practically half way out on the road because the briars and bushes are sticking out".
This was then summarised as Mr Healy-Rae blaming bushes, instead of drink drivers, for road deaths.
However, Mr Healy-Rae cited a number of factors that were contributing to road deaths and collisions - the increased volume of traffic on the roads, the longer distances people are travelling in order to commute to work, poor road quality, driver frustration at an inability to overtake on narrow roads, notorious accident blackspots that have been ignored by local authorities, speeding and a lack of enforcement of existing laws.
Instead of engaging with this nuanced contribution, Mr Healy-Rae was derided as a crank whose belligerent opposition to Mr Ross's plans left him with blood on his hands.
At a certain point, those covering politics will have to get over the fact that the Healy-Raes speak in a funny accent and actually listen to what they are saying. Given the huge mandate they received from the people of Kerry, they deserve at least that minor concession.
For anyone still confused about the electoral success of the Healy-Raes, a story doing the rounds, which may be apocryphal, should provide some clarity. Late on a Friday night before the last election, an elderly woman's cottage in North Kerry was at risk of flooding.
The woman called the local authority, but was told no one would be available to help her until Monday morning. In despair, she put a call into Michael Healy-Rae, who arrived at her home within the hour with a team of men and heavy machinery. They spent the night digging a trench at the outskirts of her property, diverting the flood water and saving the cottage.
News of this act of kindness went around the area like wildfire, part of the reason the Healy-Raes topped the poll - despite their base being in the south of the county - and unseated a veteran TD like Jimmy Deenihan.
The lesson from this yarn for the rest of us is that the Healy-Raes work for their constituents - and if they oppose Mr Ross's new legislation, it's because they're representing the majority view of the people who voted for them.
The fact is that the loss of a licence is immeasurably more serious for someone who lives in rural Ireland than an urban area like Dublin. It's easy to pontificate about favouring a zero tolerance for drink driving when you're surrounded by public transport links and pubs within walking distance. There's a reason that opposition to Mr Ross's plans is almost ubiquitous among rural TDs, with even urban TDs like Fianna Fáil's Jim O'Calllaghan believing they are excessive.
Lost in the hysterical debate last week was any acknowledgement that the traffic corps has been decimated in recent years. The figures are stark. The strength of the unit fell from a peak of 1,200 in 2009 to just 681 members at the end of last year.
What do you think provides a bigger deterrent to drink drivers? Changing the penalty for first-time drink driving offenders or having enough gardaí to provide a visible presence on roads?
Regretfully, Mr Ross seems to be the latest in a long line of ministers who believe that in order to tackle a problem, new laws are required. The truth is that it doesn't matter how many new, or amended laws, politicians pass. If we don't have gardaí to enforce them, they're not worth the paper they're written on.
Ultimately, if people think they can get away with drink driving, they will continue to do it. Imposing a mandatory disqualification instead of penalty points will not act as a deterrent. Politicians should not be attacked for saying so.