Barry Cowen sacking: Lenihan questions why vetting did not flag Pulse record

Vetting of proposed ministers ‘always carried out’, says former minister of state

Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen has been sacked by Taoiseach Micheál Martin who told the Dáil that the Offaly TD would no longer serve in Cabinet arising from continuing controversy over his drink-driving conviction. Video: RTE News/Oireachtas TV

 

Former minister of state Conor Lenihan has asked why the Garda vetting process that is required for Ministerial appointments did not highlight Barry Cowen’s Pulse record.

Vetting of proposed Ministers is always carried out before they are appointed he told RTÉ radio’s Today with Sarah McInerney show.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin removed Mr Cowen after he refused to make a second public statement about a drink driving ban imposed on him four years ago after he was found to be over the legal limit while driving home from the All-Ireland final from Dublin to Offaly.

Even a cursory desk top investigation by gardaí would bring to light such a record on the Pulse system, he said.

“If the Taoiseach did not know that this was on the record then something is amiss with the vetting procedure.”

It was surprising that if something was wrong it had not been brought to the Taoiseach’s attention.

“If something was wrong he wouldn’t have been appointed. I think there’s politics going on here.”

The Garda narrative on the Pulse system was not the same as was being reported in the media, he added.

Mr Lenihan said he felt Mr Cowen should have been given the opportunity to take the time to clarify the situation.

The controversy was not being resolved and Mr Cowen had been trying to make a point and was trying to correct the record. There was a significant issue here, “at the heart of the whole system.”

Mr Lenihan pointed out that in the case of Garda Maurice McCabe serious allegations that had been found to be untrue had been put on his record. “Barry Cowen was attempting to correct the record.”

‘Surprised and disappointed’

Former minister for agriculture Barry Cowen said on Tuesday night he was “surprised and disappointed” by the decision by the Fianna Fáil leader to sack him.

In a development to the 10-day controversy arising from the 2016 incident, Mr Martin rose to his feet shortly before 9pm to announce he had sacked Mr Cowen. It is a little over a fortnight since he was appointed to the position.

While Mr Cowen had made an unreserved apology in the Dáil last week, new disclosures had come to light since then over the Garda report of the incident that suggested Mr Cowen might have tried to avoid a Garda checkpoint.

It is virtually unprecedented for a Minister to be dismissed just two weeks after a government is formed. The only shorter ministerial career was that of newly appointed minister for defence Jim McDaid who handed back his portfolio on the same day he was nominated by then taoiseach Charlie Haughey in 1991 over a photo of him with an IRA Maze prison escaper.

In a lengthy statement issued on Tuesday night on Twitter, Mr Cowen criticised the Taoiseach’s decision to sack him on Tuesday evening, only hours after publicly backing him in the Dáil. Mr Cowen said the decision had “undermined and potentially prejudiced my entitlement to fair process”, referring to an investigation into how details of the case were leaked to the media.

‘Pick up pieces’

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has said that Fianna Fáil will pick up the pieces and move beyond the issue of Barry Cowen’s sacking.

It had been a very difficult decision for the Taoiseach to make, Mr McGrath told Newstalk Breakfast and he rejected the suggestion that this was a case of “the same old Fianna Fáil.”

The issue brought things to a head, he added. The Taoiseach was of the view that a further statement from Mr Cowen was necessary, “but Barry decided not to do that.

“Ultimately the Taoiseach had to make an incredibly difficult decision. I’m sure Barry will address the issue in his own time.”

The Taoiseach had made his decision to relieve Mr Cowen of his portfolio “absolutely without prejudice.” What was at issue was that Mr Cowen did not want to go into the Dáil to make a statement.

Mr McGrath said that the Taoiseach had been keen to afford Barry Cowen every opportunity to come before the House to clarify the situation, when he did not do so the Taoiseach was placed in a very difficult position and it led to him making a decision “that no Taoiseach wants to make.”

What had happened was deeply unfortunate and should never have happened, he said. “We have had a tough start.”

Mr McGrath said he had a huge amount of sympathy for Mr Cowen and his family.

Later on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland Mr McGrath rejected a description by Sinn Féin’s Eoin O’Broin that Mr Martin’s leadership was chaotic. “What was at issue here is the fact that the Taoiseach arrived at the view that it was not politically sustainable for Barry not to come in and deal with the issue head on.”

The situation had become the focus of much media speculation when there were other issues that needed to be addressed, he said.

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty also told Morning Ireland that the Taoiseach’s judgement was now being questioned and he needed to explain what had happened between the afternoon when he defended Mr Cowen and the evening when he sacked him.

Tullamore Fianna Fáil councillor Declan Harvey told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that he was “disgusted” with Micheál Martin’s decision to sack Barry Cowen.

It was very disappointing that there was now no Cabinet Minister in the Midlands.

The president of the Irish Farmers Association Tim Cullinan has said that he was disappointed to learn of the sacking of Mr Cowen.

Mr Cullinan told Midlands 103 that he had been impressed with Mr Cowen’s grasp of his portfolio when they met. “He was on top of the brief.”

This is a critical time for farmers he added and he was willing to work with whoever is appointed to the position of Minister for Agriculture.

The key issue was the €50million compensation package for beef farmers for losses they suffered in the spring. “We were working on a plan to get that money out to farmers. The Minister (Cowen) had committed to getting that money out in August.

“We want to ensure that money is got out as speedily as possible. I will have to take it up with the new Minister.”

Mr Cullinan said he had not been briefed prior to the sacking of Mr Cowen and the first he learned of it was on social media on Tuesday night.

“I feel sorry for the Cowen family and for the situation Barry has found himself in and I want to wish them the best.”

‘Disappointed’

The Sunday Times at the weekend reported that the Garda record of the incident stated Mr Cowen had been “pursued by gardaí after doing a U-turn as he approached a checkpoint”. The Fianna Fáil TD denied this happened and claimed the Garda record on the Pulse system is “incorrect”. He has sought a copy of his records and a complaint by Mr Cowen about the leak was been referred to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

Mr Cowen said on Tuesday night the Taoiseach informed him by phone that he was being sacked adding that he was “both surprised and disappointed” .

“Ten days ago and this afternoon the Taoiseach believed my failure of 2016 didn’t warrant my removal from office but he now appears to have changed his mind based on a Pulse report I gave him this morning,” Mr Cowen said.

“Unfortunately the decision of the Taoiseach to remove me from office, when he supported me this afternoon in the Dáil, has undermined and potentially prejudiced my entitlement to fair process.”

Mr Cowen said he had “sought an explanation – not as a government minister but as a citizen – as to how details relating to the incident were leaked to the media.

“The authorities have agreed to investigate the matter. One point warrants emphasis: at no time did I attempt to evade the gardaí. Had I done so, the charges brought against me would, quite correctly, have been of a different tenor to those with which I was charged. I am responsible for the offence with which I was convicted 4 years ago not for an inaccurate Garda entry on Pulse about that event.”

It is understood that earlier Mr Cowen had been asked to resign by Mr Martin but that he had refused the request.

Mr Martin told the Dáil that following discussions with Mr Cowen on Monday night and again on Tuesday morning “and having seen the Garda report this morning, it was my view that it raised additional issues requiring further explanation and clarification. I made this view clear to him and gave him space today to consider the matter further.

“However, he has decided that he is not prepared to address this allegation publicly and will not make any further statement or answer any questions on the issue in this House.”

“This decision has created a situation where legitimate doubts and additional questions are being raised, and Government colleagues are expected to address these. This is simply untenable.

“It is my view that Minister Cowen had an obligation to come before the House. It is also my view that this issue is damaging to the ongoing work of Government.”