Philip Ryan: 'Brendan Griffin's taxi and the fight for rural Ireland'
Rural Ireland is out of love with Shane Ross and he could become a liability
Last Wednesday, just after 7pm, Brendan Griffin was sitting at home with the wife and kids when the phone rang. Griffin is a Fine Gael TD and Minister of State for Sport and Tourism, so he gets lots of phone calls. Voters ring about constituency issues, officials call about government business and the wife might give him a bell to pick up some messages down the shops.
But the other night, a constituent was on the phone looking for a lift to the pub. Griffin was supposed to pick up someone else from a pub nearby so he thought he could kill two birds with one stone. You see, the minister, along with some supporters, runs a free community transport service for local voters who are feeling the impact of rural isolation.
The group was donated a car which they appropriately insured and now they take turns running the weekday service. They don't charge punters but they do accept donations. And it's not only for drinkers. They also drop people to and from the shops or wherever else they might like to go.
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Griffin's taxi service would strike you as an extraordinarily charitable act on first impression. However, it is also borne out of sheer political necessity. In the minister's Kerry constituency, our national obsession with downing pints in pubs is as prevalent as anywhere else in the country. In fact, if you were to listen to the Healy-Rae brothers you would think we have a constitutional right to a feed of a porter each and every day we walk on God's earth. To be stripped of the simple dignity, they would have you believe, is a human rights abuse.
Danny and Michael have been running an evangelical campaign against recently imposed road safety laws which impose stricter penalties on drink drivers. The new rules, which were the brainchild of Transport Minister Shane Ross, also make it illegal for learner drivers to drive unaccompanied. This causes a lot of difficulties for families, not just the drivers themselves, living in parts of the country where public transport is far from frequent. The fear of being stopped at a Garda checkpoint the day after the night before has also become a significant worry in certain parts of the country.
Sure if you can't get to Mass to seek penance for the previous night's indulgence, what hope do you have?
The Healy-Raes have taken a lot of flak over their criticism of Minister Ross's drink-driving laws. But they've hit a nerve and Griffin knows it. Griffin, remember, is the junior minister in Ross's department so he can hardly be seen to be rallying against the legislation he has helped enact. So, instead, he has to resort to driving constituents to the pub.
Insane, you might think from the comfort of your suburban Dublin home. But then you can probably walk to the nearest bar. You probably have a choice of watering holes.
The debate over the right not to die on the roads and the right to down pints in your local has been raging among rural TDs since they returned from the Christmas break. Back in the safety of Leinster House, they complained that they could barely get through a pint before being confronted by a constituent who couldn't have a sherry when they called around to an elderly aunt "because of Shane Ross and his drink-driving laws".
Thanks to the confidence and supply agreement, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail TDs were getting it in the ear over Ross.
With the local elections approaching, concern about the public's attitude to road safety laws has increased in both parties but mostly Fine Gael.
Leo Varadkar and his Dublin-centric band of Cabinet ministers are not performing well in rural Ireland. The results of the recent Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll were worrying for those in Fine Gael who pore over statistics. Nationally the poll showed Fine Gael would win 30pc of first preference votes if an election was called in the morning. This increased to 35pc in Dublin but dramatically dropped 23pc in Connacht/Ulster and 26pc in Munster.
With these figures, Varadkar won't be winning back the seats Fine Gael lost in Munster or making gains in target constituencies such as Sligo Leitrim, Cavan/Monaghan, Roscommon/Galway or Longford/Westmeath.
The worry in Fine Gael is that there is a narrative growing that they don't care about rural Ireland. Ross's driving laws are a catalyst for this for a couple of reasons. One, as pointed out earlier, is that it is a genuine problem for people and not just those gasping for a pint. The other is that there is not too much else going on in the political sphere for people to give out about.
Brexit, for the time being, is too esoteric for most people to fully appreciate the graveness of what may come. That could change abruptly in the coming days and if it does it will be hugely damaging for rural Ireland. It is almost accepted by the Government that the Irish beef industry will be wiped out if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal. Other agri-food sectors and related small business are in trouble, too.
A graphic uploaded on Twitter by Edgar Morgenroth, professor of economics at Dublin City University, showed how badly each county would be affected by a reduction in employment from the introduction of trade tariffs. Naturally the border counties of Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Leitrim will be hit hard. But interestingly, Minister Griffin's home county of Kerry will also suffer badly in the no-deal scenario. So it's little wonder he's driving voters to the pub. Tipperary, Kilkenny and Laois are also in for serious job losses, according to Prof Morgenroth.
But for now, people are talking about the pub which tells you a lot about how far we've come since the last local elections. In 2014, Fine Gael haemorrhaged votes because they were taking medical cards off sick children and trying to force people to pay for water.
Housing and health will be the perennial issues they are at almost every election, but Ross's road safety campaign could be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back for the average rural voter. Don't forget Ross's crusade is far from over. He's currently drafting legislation for new speeding laws which will include a graded system for awarding penalty points depending on how fast you were driving. To say this is not going down well within Fine Gael is an understatement.
Fine Gael cabinet ministers have privately suggested they would consider resigning if the Taoiseach was to further indulge Ross and his speeding laws. Fine Gael tacticians have warned the only way to win back votes in some parts of rural Ireland is to distance the party from Ross. This, it was suggested, could only be done by the Taoiseach either sacking Ross or antagonising him into resigning.
"The best thing we could do is start some sort of convoluted row with him and kick him out of Cabinet before we go to the country," a senior Fine Gael source said. "It's the only thing that would rescue us from the narrative that we won't stand up to Ross," the source added.
Varadkar sacking Ross might seem far fetched at this point in time, but perhaps we should return to the subject after the local elections.