Friday 23 August 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Once again McGrath has walked into his own punch - but the crazy times we're in mean he won't get the ministerial P45 he deserves'

Finian McGrath
Finian McGrath
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

As we look across the water to the greatest calamity in modern political history, a range of emotions spring to mind - bewilderment, scorn and downright contempt being the most prominent.

Theresa May now looks as broken as a bride who has been shunned at her own wedding reception and the sight of her various ministers and former allies taking turns to stick the boot into their supposed 'leader' is both unedifying and a rather horrifying indication that parliamentary democracy rests on a knife edge in the UK.

But as much as we look at the dangerously farcical events unfolding with that combination of scorn, bewilderment and downright contempt, we should be careful not to be too smug about our own situation, which now sees Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath the latest member of Cabinet to go rogue.

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McGrath's comments on drink-driving were, under any rational metric, complete nonsense.

In his now-infamous interview with the 'Sunday Independent', the embattled minister made some rather strange and extremely serious assertions.

During the interview, he claimed that the Government had to "bite the bullet" on Shane Ross's new drink-driving laws but then upended the table with his claim that members of An Garda Síochána are so unhappy with the new laws that they have started to excessively breathalyse drivers as some weird form of political protest.

Warming to his theme, he further expounded that: "I'm getting complaints around the country that they are breathalysing people at 2pm in the day. To me, the breathalysing time should be at pub closing time between 12 o'clock and two in the morning. That's where the focus should be, so I don't know what agenda is going on here."

Those remarks alone would have been sufficiently odd to raise more than one eyebrow.

But warming to his tinfoil-helmet routine, he then added that: "I think they [gardaí] have an issue and that I feel uncomfortable about. The law is there to implement - you're a civil servant, get on with it. Some of them don't like the law, yes. I suspect that's part of the angle and they are saying, 'well, blame the Government', and I don't like that."

He then further stuck the boot in by going so far as to claim that: "I would like Drew Harris now, as part of the reforms we have to de-politicise anything like that in a police force. A police force - like teachers, nurses - guards should always be non-political. That would not be tolerated in any other profession."

Even in the strange and terrible state of the current political landscape, it was a remarkable thing to say.

After all, here is a man who sits at the Cabinet table and decided that even though we're in the midst of the biggest national crisis any of us have ever witnessed, now was the perfect time to accuse the cops of being, essentially, a mutinous political force that gets to cherry-pick which laws it enforces and which ones it doesn't.

Nobody ever won any prizes for defending the police in this country and there is no doubt that shenanigans of previous commissioners have left a sour taste in the mouth of many observers - of all political stripes.

But apart from blithely insulting the very people who have to - sometimes literally - pick up the pieces after a car crash, he was also demonstrably incorrect in his fatuous claim.

After all, 10pc of drink-driving crashes occur between the hours of 7am and 11am. But leaving aside the mere factual inaccuracy, the remarks seem to indicate a man who is simply not up to his job.

Not surprisingly, the condemnation of his remarks was vociferous. Numerous road safety campaigners were quick to point out the sheer ignorance of the comments, and his colleagues, such as Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, seemed genuinely aghast. Numerous fellow junior ministers were quick to condemn him and, not for the first time in his career, as soon as McGrath realised he had made a massive mistake he immediately rolled back.

The ink was barely dry on the newspaper before he issued a statement "withdrawing" his remarks and he then added, for good measure, that: "I am also happy to state that I have full confidence in An Garda Síochána and that I was wrong to suggest there was any element of politicising within the force over the new drink-driving regulations."

With the best will in the world, that's simply not good enough.

After all, if you are going to make the rather dangerous suggestion that gardaí are a law unto themselves, who unilaterally decide which rules they enforce depending on their mood, then it stretches credulity to state that you "have full confidence" in the force.

Simply put, either he has confidence in them or he doesn't. If he does have confidence in them, why make such an incendiary claim in the first place?

Frankly, his ferocious backtracking matters not a jot when compared to the conspiracy-theory grenade he rolled down the corridor.

In much the same way that some UK politicians have been accused of politicising the stop-and-search proposals in London which are designed to cut down on their knife crime epidemic, there were two things that stood out with his comments - a seemingly irresistible desire to make a cheap, populist political point and an apparent indifference to the families and victims of drunk drivers.

To be charitable, one could perhaps say that the minister is from a time when drink driving wasn't taken all that seriously in this country. But those days, thankfully, are long gone and the culture has changed for the better, and most people now understand that driving is a responsibility not a right and that driving over the limit is not just illegal but morally reprehensible.

It's not the first time McGrath has walked into his own punch. Whether it was his hopelessly misguided defence of totalitarian Cuba, his initial opposition to the HPV vaccine, or paying the water charges, he seems almost incapable of not putting his foot in it - before invariably making the kind of swift U-turn that would leave most mere mortals perilously dizzy.

In normal times, this furore would surely be enough to force Leo Varadkar to listen to the calls for his resignation and hand him his ministerial P45.

But as we know, these are far from normal times and he's hardly the only minister woefully out of his depth, so he might manage to hang on. Again.

In one of the lesser spotted comments in that interview, he laughed that he would "do a deal with the Devil himself" if it secured his place in the next cabinet.

Perhaps mindful of the PR liability which McGrath has now become, the Devil has yet to give his response...

Irish Independent

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