‘My life was turned upside down, all because a drunk driver took the chance’

A mother of a young drink-driving victim is campaigning for a change in the law

Christina Donnelly mother of Brendan who was killed by a drunk driver in a car crash at Castlemartyr, Co Cork. Photograph: Mary Browne

Christina Donnelly mother of Brendan who was killed by a drunk driver in a car crash at Castlemartyr, Co Cork. Photograph: Mary Browne

 

Christina Donnelly rings her son Brendan’s mobile number every evening before she goes to sleep.

“Hi, this is Brendan, leave a message,” his voice says, before the beep comes. His mobile purrs brightly beside her.

The message is six years old, unchanged since the night he was killed by a drunk driver, as he drove with friends to Cork Airport.

“I ring his phone every day to hear his voice before I go to sleep,” Donnelly says. “I ring Brendan if I’m under pressure and need a little bit of help or if something might have happened. My son Seán had a beautiful little boy last year and they called him Seán Brendan. I rang him to say, ‘You’ve got your little nephew now’.”

Just 24 when he died, he was “a lovely man”, she says. Next weekend, she will visit her son’s grave in Waterford, as she has done so many times.

Tougher legislation

The man who caused the crash, Anthony Long, from Leadington, Leamlara, Cork, was given a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing death, but he was freed after serving three years and eight months.

“My life was turned upside down, and that of my son Seán, all because a drunk driver took the chance and decided to have no respect for human life when he got into his car,” says Donnelly, who lives in Cheekpoint, Co Waterford.

The need for change has been highlighted by figures unearthed by The Irish Times, which show that only a fraction of the drivers found to be over the limit in Garda roadside checks are eventually put off the road.

Conviction rates

“As far as I’m concerned, drivers are actually being given permission to go out and drink again and, God forbid, who knows how it will end the second and third time.”

“The legal system, such as barristers, have to go in and defend their clients, but they do know in their heads that this is wrong. They have a job to do, but this is wrong. Whether or not they’re searching for loopholes, it boils down to the judge on the day.”

However, a Kerry solicitor, Padraig O’Connell, who has successfully defended clients in a number of high-profile drink-driving cases that were dismissed in District Courts in the county, said that cases are won “on the evidence” and not on technicalities or loopholes.

Proofs

A judge is entitled to dismiss a case if the Garda evidence is deficient, he argues. The penalties for conviction are serious: disqualification, higher insurance, loss of work.

In a case last year, O’Connell successfully argued in court that a farmer should not be convicted after gardaí near Sneem, Co Kerry, found him wavering over the white line in the middle of the road on a 40-year-old tractor in the early hours.

The farmer pulled off the road and into the driveway of a private house. Gardaí were allowed to follow him on to a third-party property to arrest him, but not to investigate.

Judge James O’Connor said he believed the man had pulled into the drive to evade gardaí, but there was “a lacuna” in the State’s evidence and he would have to give the farmer the benefit of the doubt and dismiss the drink-driving charge.

– Additional reporting by Anne Lucey