Friday 23 August 2019

John Downing: 'Dáil numbers, Brexit and other cruxes mean McGrath likely to get off with only a 'caution''

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John Downing

John Downing

It looks rather like Finian McGrath is going to "get off with a caution". He has reversed out of a few very ill-thought-out comments about An Garda Síochána's operation of road checks for drink driving and wisely went into media purdah for a time thereafter.

In other circumstances there would be a strong case for him having to quit. In essence he was accusing the nation's police of trying to undermine a minister in the Government - that is pretty hefty and perilous stuff.

Up until Sunday, the likeable Independent TD and super-junior minister responsible for disability issues, appeared to have settled down as a diligent member of the Government team. After a few calamitous and quixotic forays into the media on various issues after his appointment in May 2016, he appeared to be the one from the Independent Alliance most accepting that Government is different, slower, harder and more complex than being an Opposition TD who can be perennially "agin the Government and all the related authorities".

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Then he did a 'Sunday Independent' interview and spoke out without thinking of the huge implications of what he was saying. He said gardaí had become politicised and were carrying out unnecessary breathalyser tests, especially in the mornings, because they opposed new drink-driving laws.

Mr McGrath alleged gardaí were keen to "stick things" to his Independent Alliance colleague, the unloved Transport Minister Shane Ross, who had pushed through laws toughening penalties for drivers caught at the lower-range of drink transgressions. He similarly cited the tougher rules on unqualified drivers having to be accompanied at all times by a fully licensed driver.

That 'Sunday Independent' interview is well worth reading in full. It shows a huge honesty by Finian McGrath about issues like housing, and a determination to back his embattled Cabinet colleagues, Eoghan Murphy in housing and Simon Harris in health.

But Mr McGrath's comments about the nation's police force - and his exhortation to the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, to intervene - were a bridge far too far.

You have to reach back to the 1973-77 ill-starred Fine Gael-Labour coalition to find anything comparable.

Back then, allegations began to build of "a heavy gang" of gardaí breaking the law by coercing, intimidating and assaulting IRA and other paramilitary suspects under detention. Fine Gael informally claimed the allegations came from pro-Fianna Fáil gardaí - claims which were never put on the formal record.

Comparisons are also made with the late defence minister Paddy Donegan who, in 1976, dubbed President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh "a thundering disgrace" for doing his duty in referring tough anti-terrorist legislation to the Supreme Court to test how it accorded with human rights guarantees in the Constitution.

Back then Mr Donegan stayed in office and the President resigned.

It reminds us that everything relates to the political situation of the day. Predictably, Fianna Fáil's justice spokesperson, Jim O'Callaghan, has said Finian McGrath's comments were "very foolish" and "over the top".

Mr O'Callaghan then said he should apologise to An Garda Síochána. Fianna Fáil is not betting the farm on this row.

And enter Fine Gael grandee Richard Bruton to stress he had full confidence in Mr McGrath and "anyone can make a mistake". Wagons circled, and time to move on. Messrs Bruton and McGrath are constituency colleagues. Anyone for a transfer, guard?

Irish Independent

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