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'Danny Healy Rae's drink-driving comments are callous, I won't accommodate his fantasies'

Shane Ross on the rural-urban divide that has opened up on the drink-driving debate.

Danny Healy Rae is a likeable guy. But I think his comments are callous and completely unsympathetic to the tragedies that have befallen those who have had loved ones killed by drunk drivers.

— THE KERRY TD Danny Healy Rae – a politician known for his controversial comments on a range of issues, not least climate change – has been one of the most vocal opponents of Shane Ross’s new drink-driving bill.

But the Transport Minister has told TheJournal.ie that he won’t consider Healy Rae’s concerns, due to the extreme nature of his comments about the effects of alcohol on drivers.

A rural versus urban divide has emerged between some TDs and senators over the proposed drink-driving law changes, with some politicians insisting they are unfair to those living in rural Ireland.

The Road Traffic Amendment Bill, which Ross has championed, would see an automatic three-month suspension handed down to those caught with 50-80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. Currently those caught within that limit are given penalty points and a fine.

The Cabinet has endorsed the changes to the drink-driving laws. However, the bill’s passage through the Oireachtas in the autumn is unclear. A decision has not yet been made on whether non-Cabinet members of Fine Gael will get a free vote on the matter – and it’s not clear how other parties will cast their ballots.

Danny Healy Rae has argued in recent months that a driver who has consumed a few glasses of beer represents no danger to the public. He also said he would be happy to fly in a plane if the pilot had consumed alcohol. He argued that “someone with three glasses drunk is not a danger on our roads, I firmly believe that”.

1232  Road Traffic Bill_90518149 Alec Lee from Tipperary who lost his daughter Carol, aged 15, in a road accident, alongside Minister Shane Ross outside the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Driving after three glasses

The Kilgarvan-based TD came in for harsh criticism when he was captured on video telling a family of a drink-driving victim that motorists should be allowed to drink three glasses of alcohol before driving. Families of road victims had gathered outside the Dáil to support Ross’s proposals.

Ross said he was willing to listen to rural TDs and senators who had issues with his bill, but described Danny Healy Rae’s comments are unreasonable.

“I think some of the other people, including his brother Michael, have a much more reasoned approach to it and some would probably like to distance themselves from what he is saying.

Michael Healy Rae has made a good case for what he is saying, because he is saying that rural life is being threatened because people might not be able to go out and have a drink – not the crazy fantasies his brother has indulged in.

‘Fantasies’ 

“I would like to be able to accommodate people like Michael Healy Rae, but I can’t accommodate Danny Healy Rae with his fantasies,” he added.

The older Healy Rae made headlines again this week comments about fairy forts damaging the road networks in Kerry. We asked Ross: do comments like this detract from any serious arguments the rural TD might make?

“I am not sure if he believes in fairies or not, but I am not sure in how many politicians believe in his rather way out views on fairies and climate change and things like that. He is quite entitled to his views. Maybe fairies do exist? I don’t know,” Ross said jokingly, adding:

I don’t think it adds to his credibility. He doesn’t do his case any favours by doing that.

90414418_90414418 Kerry TD Danny Healy Rae. Source: RollingNews.ie

Ross said he is “very confident” the bill will pass, insisting that the majority of people want to see his new law introduced.

Last week, the Road Safety Authority (RSA) published a new survey which showed that 79% of people believe that those caught drink driving should face an automatic disqualification.

Said Ross:

“The research, conducted by the RSA, which is a Behaviour and Attitudes survey, and was commissioned an independent body, shows overwhelmingly that the general population, particularly the rural population, are behind much stricter drink-driving laws.

And yet some of the rural TDs – Danny Healy Rae being an extreme example – are obviously acting in a way that really isn’t in agreement with the majority of their constituents. My only conclusion from this is it must be the amazingly strong campaign run by the vintners – who sell drink and make money out of drink – [that has] been effective and has captured a lot of TDs.

The chief of the Irish Vintners Federation (which lobbies on behalf of publicans), Padraig Cribben, argued earlier this year that Ross’s proposals would not “contribute to saving one life”.

Fianna Fáil

Ross said he is surprised that so many opposition politicians, particularly Fianna Fáil, are fighting against his new bill. He also raised concerns about the impact lobbyists were having in the overall debate.

Speaking about Fianna Fáil’s transport spokesperson, Robert Troy, who has been an outspoken critic of the new proposals, Ross said he “can’t understand” his attitude or that of his party’s.

Troy argues the minister has not produced any evidence to support the proposals.

However, Troy told TheJournal.ie, that Fianna Fáil does not condone drink driving “contrary to the spin Minister Ross is continuing to peddle”.

“His obsession with with my party on this matter doesn’t make sense – we were the party that brought in random breath testing,” he said, adding:

“The minister should outline how he plans to reduce the number of deaths on our roads by deterring drink driving. I should have thought that top of his agenda would be lobbying hard to have traffic corps numbers increased.”

“Minister Ross is clearly losing the evidence based arguments on this issue, and is returning to past form by playing the man and not the ball.”

Troy argues that increasing penalty points and increasing the fines significantly could act as an extra deterrent to those who drink over the limit and drive. He confirmed that he had not met with the vintners on this issue and has no intention of meeting them.

While the minister is concerned that TDs are being won over by industry lobbyists, he also thinks politicians with vested interests in pubs should be upfront about it.

As long as they are upfront about it, that’s fine. If they say, ‘Look, I am or was publican’ – I think that is fine, let them take that view. They are entitled to that view as long as they declare their vested interests and admit that they make money out of selling drink.

Even aside from politicians’ direct links with the bar industry, he said, many “hold their clinics in pubs and they mix with publicans, so I think they are probably susceptible to that sort of pressure”.

I think vintners should buzz off and get off the pitch and leave it to the parliamentarians to get on with it.

I don’t think vested interests should be tolerated in this way.

Getting home from the pub

While Ross is not for moving on his bill, he said he is willing to look at new measures that would aid people in getting home from the pub in rural Ireland.

His junior minister, Fine Gael Kerry TD Brendan Griffin (who gave up life behind a bar when he became a TD) said he would spend the summer “exploring” budgetary ways of assisting publicans, such as a reduction in Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) or a rebate on fuel costs.

The idea being floated is that publicans might get some sort of tax incentive or break for bringing their customers home at the end of each night (an idea that was first put forward by Troy in the Oireachtas Transport Committee in February)

90431169_90431169 Junior Minister Brendan Griffin. Source: Eamonn Farrell

However, Ross has ruled out any such tax breaks for publicans.

“I don’t think tax breaks are top of the agenda, that is not really the idea. The idea is that the vintners themselves, who are so moved to object to something that will save lives, should find a way of helping their customers,” he said.

A meeting, he added, is due to be held between the vintners and the insurance industry to see if a resolution can be reached that would assist those in rural areas who want to go to the pub.

I would like to accommodate them and we are attempting to do that. I don’t think the meeting has happened yet, but we are trying to get the companies together to see if something can be done as we don’t want to threaten rural life in any way.

He said he and Michael Healy Rae had had “some very constructive conversations” but insisted “there is no question of us yielding on the bill at all”.

“But if we can accommodate those that feel their social life is being threatened then I think that would be a good thing.

I am very happy as a minister and I am sure my junior minister Brendan Griffin, who sees this from an angle of tourists, is happy to help in knocking heads together and accommodating those that feel threatened by this.

But if you are asking if there is a big wad of money? Then no, there isn’t. But if there are ways and means that we can help out, sure, we will accommodate and facilitate them.

If or when he gets his drink-driving bill through, the minister said he is setting his sights on speeding next. This year, he plans to roll-out the naming and shaming of those convicted of speeding.

He said his department is also investigating how to clamp down on the use of mobile phones while driving, and is reviewing new rules in the UK which have doubled the penalty points for those caught while driving with a mobile phone.

We are doing what I feel is a very minor change in the drink driving laws. For speeding, we are doing naming and shaming this year. Drink, speed, mobile phones and safety belts – if we could sort them out, we could sort out an awful lot.

Shane Ross: ‘I hope it doesn’t take some awful accident for us to wake up to the fact sport is getting more rough’>

Read: Over 14,000 drivers caught on their phones in 2017 – and some were posing for selfies>

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