Ministers clashed over safety testing of garda drivers

 

Dispute over ministerial drivers: Justice minister Brian Lenihan caused outrage when he tried to introduce retraining of garda drivers, writes Joe Humphreys

Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan faced a mini-revolt in the Cabinet in 1966, when he tried to arrange motor safety training for all ministerial drivers.

Minister for Transport and Power Erskine Childers took particular exception to the proposal, saying "I would like to suggest with all the force at my command" that Mr Childers' particular driver "be not required to take the driving test, as I am entirely satisfied with his performance".

The files released by the Department of Justice indicate an extraordinary degree of sensitivity around Garda drivers, with certain ministers viewing interference in the domain as a personal slight.

Writing to Mr Lenihan in July 1966, Mr Childers said he was "staggered" by the suggestion that his driver should go on a training course, noting that the garda in question "has only barely touched another car on one or two occasions" - apart, that is, from one major accident for which "he was declared to be innocent".

In a follow-up letter in August 1966, Mr Childers told Mr Lenihan: "I understand that some of my colleagues have prevented you from arranging this training and, as my driver has had a splendid record with me, I do hope that you are not in any way trying to bring pressure, because if other colleagues have resisted your suggestion successfully, then I must also. I do not want to embarrass you, but there the matter stands."

Mr Lenihan replied that there was no truth in the allegations, and that the Garda Commissioner felt the tests were necessary in the interests of "both safety and proper discipline".

Mr Childers' driver was eventually retested, and passed fit for continuing in his duties.

It was not the first time the two ministers had clashed over the issue of garda drivers, however.

Mr Childers had the previous year objected to a decision to replace another one of his drivers who was found by the Garda surgeon to be colour-blind.

Writing to Mr Lenihan in April 1965, Mr Childers said he had tested the driver in question "all over the country, in relation to colours of advertisements, the different shades of red, yellow and blue. I have tested him on traffic lights which he understands perfectly".

Mr Childers, who also contacted the Garda Commissioner over the matter, conceded the driver in question had "a very, very low degree of colour blindness".

But, the minister wrote, "as long as he can absolutely distinguish between red and green traffic lights, I cannot see why he should be asked to leave the driving service".

Mr Childers' appeals were turned down, and his approaching of the Garda Commissioner was criticised by the Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry. In a handwritten note, Mr Berry also argued that "the wishes of individual ministers should not overrule the surgeon's medical advice".