Thursday 20 June 2019

Shane Ross: 'Checkpoints, a googly and Leinster House's lunatic fringe'

Politicians need to heed the voices of reason in the drink-drive debate - it's a life and death issue, writes Shane Ross

Categorically, let me state here that neither Simon nor any other minister has ever proposed 'Border' checks to me. Our focus is entirely on getting the backstop and Withdrawal Agreement over the line. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA
Categorically, let me state here that neither Simon nor any other minister has ever proposed 'Border' checks to me. Our focus is entirely on getting the backstop and Withdrawal Agreement over the line. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA

God bless Drew Harris, our independent Garda Commissioner. God bless Josephine Fehily, chairwoman of the Policing Authority. God bless Ireland's road victims groups. Credible voices of sanity emerged from last week's political madness about whether gardai should be enforcing the law.

It's a bit of an odd question. Yet some lawmakers seem to think drink-driving is an a la carte crime. Sometimes it's fine. Sometimes it's disgraceful. Reports of a fresh political rebellion against a clampdown on driving while over the limit were circulating in Leinster House. Nearly all the sedition was under the radar.

Ah well, there are some very odd people with very soft voices roaming the corridors of power.

Last Friday, The Times reported that the Garda Commissioner had defended the use of early-morning checkpoints to catch drink-drivers.

God forbid! How is it big news when the chief law-enforcer feels compelled to defend his decision to enforce the law? It's a sobering thought that there are low standards in high places when it comes to drink.

Drew had told The Times there was a problem with the number of people driving in the morning while still over the blood alcohol limit. He said there was a mistaken belief among some motorists (he was tactful enough not to say 'politicians') that driving was always all right the next morning, adding: " It's not all right. If you're over the limit you're incapable of having proper control of your vehicle and that is why checkpoints are there."

Drew wanted to save a few lives over the Christmas period.

Down in Leinster House, TDs had returned from their Christmas holidays. Some of the lunatic fringe were huffing and puffing about the evil of breathalysing drink-drivers in the morning. Christmas, the festive season when people abuse alcohol, had seen a clampdown on drink-driving. They were spooked. Some of their constituents had been caught. Ten people had been arrested on Christmas Day. The gardai had gone rogue and were implementing the law. Most were whispering their opposition from the sanctuary of anonymity.

They want the early morning to be decreed a Drew-free time zone.

Brave Mattie McGrath TD stepped up. Mattie wanted to divert the gardai to put more resources into dealing with rural crime "rather than breathalysing people going to Mass." He added that gardai were losing the support of the people and - for good measure - "it is literally becoming a police state". Is Mattie advocating some form of direct divine derogation from the drink-driving laws, straight from the Almighty , for those heading for religious services.

Mattie received a devastating punch from Josephine Fehily. In a devastating riposte to all those advocating that Drew calls off the early morning patrols, she icily told The Times: "We hear constant calls for more gardai and more garda visibility but we're not sure we want them near us when it comes to things like this.

"We want police officers. We want them to have powers and we want them to use them on the other fellow."

God bless Josephine. She remembered who was screaming for increased enforcement before the Drink Driving Bill was passed. No doubt she knows they are precisely the same people calling for less enforcement today.

Other politicians , of whatever party, lurking in the shadows briefing the media against tougher drink-driving laws will not listen to Josephine or Drew.

Perhaps they should heed the words of the victims of road carnage? Last week, Leo Lieghio, whose 16-year-old daughter died as a result of a horrific hit-and-run car crash, spoke out.

He spoke to Matt Cooper on The Hard Shoulder. "I think it is absolutely comical," he insisted calmly. "I find it surprising that any TD would criticise the gardai for doing their jobs and enforcing the law.

"As regards to people drinking the morning after, if you are over the limit the night before and you are over the limit the morning after, there is no difference."

He is right. Mattie and his crew are living on Planet Publican. Perhaps they might acknowledge that the road death figures have improved - admittedly not yet by nearly enough. Pubs may have been closed (mostly for other reasons), but lives have been saved since we began to introduce stricter road safety measures.

And God bless Simon Coveney, a politician who refused to become embroiled in this sordid spat last week. Simon and I were preoccupied in another skirmish. Strangely enough, both controversies involved checkpoints. Both landed in some pretty sordid off-the-record briefings from anonymous colleagues in the Dail. Funnily enough, the same politicians opposing drink-driving laws seem to be spinning hostile briefings on the Brexit story. I would hate to believe newspaper reports that most of the unnamed critics are my Fine Gael colleagues.

It was all my fault, of course. One minister (the sole example of friendly fire!) described me as a 'scapegoat' on the drink-driving issue. But the critics were right on one point: at a media event about Brexit, I had thrown a hospital pass towards Simon. It was not a collegiate gesture. He caught it and skilfully defused it.

Philip Ryan, a sometimes mischievous journalist from this parish, lobbed a googly in my direction. "In a no-deal scenario," he asked, "and Britain crashes out of the EU, a freight truck containing agri-food subject to strict EU conditions leaves Scotland and arrives in Larne in Antrim. Is that truck then able to come off that boat and come straight into Ireland - the Republic of Ireland - with that produce or is there, or will there be, any checks in that scenario?"

Note there was no mention of "Border" checks. Just checks. The difference is important. Yet there were grenades galore in Philip's question. Instead of opting for the political exit I took the explosive route. "I would anticipate that there would be checks," I responded before handing the question to Simon to clear the air. I instantly realised that my reply would not be music to the ears of the Tanaiste.

Simon took the sting out of the situation. He accurately reassured the media that the Border would be dealt with through the divorce deal, adding that the Government had not gone into contingency plans for dealing with the Border in a no-deal scenario because we want to see the backstop, that is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, ratified.

Unfortunately the Indo had placed a dictaphone on the table beside us, which picked up a later private conversation. It was not significant, but was exploited to embarrass us.

Despite the fact that the Border was never mentioned in either the question or the answer, the media immediately took the line that the Government was secretly planning Border checks.

Categorically, let me state here that neither Simon nor any other minister has ever proposed 'Border' checks to me. Our focus is entirely on getting the backstop and Withdrawal Agreement over the line. I am grateful to commentators who have ignored the frantic spinning and have recognised my response as an utterly honest reply, if not immediately helpful to the Government's Brexit narrative.

Unfortunately, it gave an opportunity for the shadowy spinners from the drink-driving gang to resurface - they care little for the perils of a hard Border or the threat of more road deaths.

Drew Harris is going to have his work cut out if his magnificent work at Christmas is going to be undermined by public figures from all parties bad-mouthing his enthusiasm to enforce the law.

Shane Ross is the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Independent Alliance TD for Dublin Rathdown

Sunday Independent

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