Barry Cowen tells Dáil he is profoundly sorry for ‘stupid’ drink-driving offence

Road safety campaigner says many questions have been left unanswered

Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen has told the Dáil he is "profoundly sorry" for a drink-driving offence in 2016. Video: Oireachtas TV

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Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen has told the Dáil he is profoundly sorry for a drink-driving offence in 2016.

He said his decision to drive while over the limit and on a provisional driving permit was a stupid mistake and he had apologised to road safety groups and campaigners.

He said the drink driving offence on the way home from an All-Ireland football final on September 18th, 2016 was the one and only time he had driven while over the limit.

“Before the match I consumed two drinks and following the game had a light meal before driving home to Offaly. On the way to drop my friend home I was stopped by gardaí and asked to participate in a breathalyser test. I did so, and both this test and a subsequent test at a local Garda station confirmed that I was over the legal alcohol limit,” he said.

At the time he held a learner driver permit and the penalty was a €200 fine and a three month driving ban.

“I subsequently secured and now hold a full clean driving licence,” he said.

“My decision in September 2016 to drive home after consuming any alcohol was a stupid stupid mistake. It never happened before the 18th of September 2016 and it has never happened since. It was a mistake for which I am profoundly sorry,” he added.

He had examined his records and the only other offence for which he had paid a fine that had not already been reported by media was for failing to display a tax disc while parked in Tullamore 14 years ago.

Mr Cowen told the Dáil it was not uncommon to drive on a learner permit before reforms of the driver licensing system but it was bad practice and he should have regularised his position sooner.

He said other offences including parking fines should not be conflated with the totally different issue of drink driving.

Alone

The Minister who sat alone on the Government benches said in his personal statement to the House that the emergence of the issue had put an intense spotlight on him and on “more importantly, the shame of drink driving”.

He said the criticism he had attracted for a serious lapse of judgment was fully deserved. “This grave error and my subsequent humiliation will hopefully serve to highlight the terrible dangers and consequences of drink driving.”

Mr Cowen said he spoke earlier on Tuesday to Susan Gray of Parc road safety group and Donna Price of the Irish Road Safety Association and apologised to them. He said he had also apologised to his family, the Taoiseach, the Government, his constituents and the public.

Mr Cowen referred to “some speculation about how someone my age could be driving on either a learner permit or provisional licence”.

He said the fact is that before the recent reforms of the system it was “not uncommon for people of all ages and levels of experience to either be on a provisional or learner permit. However this was bad practice and I clearly should have regularised my position sooner.”

He said that after a full examination of all his records “the only additional event that I have been able to identify, not reported this morning was a failure to display a tax disc while parked in Tullamore 14 years ago for which I paid a fine”.

Mr Cowen said he would “now invest my full energy and full focus on the responsibilities I have been given as a TD and a Minister”.

‘So disappointed’

Susan Gray of Parc, said afterwards that Mr Cowen had left “so many unanswered” questions.

She said he rang her on Tuesday morning and she put several questions to him. “He assured me he would answer as many as he could tonight during his statement. It just beggars belief that that man has ignored the huge elephant in the room here. Where he was driving on a learner permit for years and years, he has admitted he drove unaccompanied ... he was done for speeding, he took it to court ... we asked him did the penalty points get applied to his licence. We know that a learner driver after receiving seven penalty points is automatically disqualified,” she told RTÉ’s Prime Time.

“We just can’t believe he didn’t answer any of them questions,” she added.

She said she asked Mr Cowen on Tuesday morning when did he get his full licence. “He said a few years ago, he couldn’t give me the date. I told him it would be on his driving licence ... he didn’t have it on him”.

She asked if he displayed N plates as a provisional permit holder. “There are so many unanswered questions that we will be issuing a statement tomorrow on what we decide is the best way forward,” she said.

Questions

Earlier an opposition attempt to force Mr Cowen to answer questions after his Dáil statement about his drink driving ban was defeated.

Mr Cowen made his statement at 9pm on Tuesday.

Labour and a number of Independent TDs supported Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Green Party in the 30 to 14 vote which prevented a change to the order of business.

Rise TD Paul Murphy said it was not acceptable and “problematic” that Mr Cowen would give a statement without answering questions.

The Dublin South-West TD said there were “numerous questions” outstanding about the offence, Mr Cowen’s licence and whether he was breaching the law repeatedly in relation to learner plates and being accompanied by a fully licensed driver.

He added that it was the “first test of the Government and whether they’re going to establish a precedent” by using their majority to prevent questions to a Minster involved in controversy.

Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail said Mr Cowen had made a request for speaking time to make a personal statement under Standing Order 56 which did not allow for debate.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath said no request had been made at the business committee about the issue and he accused Mr Murphy of “showboating and shenanigans”.

‘Cute hoor’

Taoiseach Micheál Martin rejected opposition suggestions that Fianna Fáil is back to “old style cute hoor kind of politics”.

Labour leader Alan Kelly made the claim in the Dáil as he highlighted controversies that erupted in the party’s first week back in office.

He raised the issue during Mr Martin’s first leaders’ questions in the Dáil as Taoiseach.

But Mr Martin stressed that he had been focused on “policy and substance”. He said that “other stuff goes on as it always has in politics and we will deal with that too”.

Mr Kelly said that Mr Martin had had the “shortest honeymoon in history” of just two hours before internal party criticism began.

He told the Taoiseach: “One of your Ministers has had to apologise quite publicly for his driving ban while on a provisional licence,” in reference to controversy over Mr Cowen and the drink driving offence.

Mr Kelly added that it was “in the same week your Minister for health has stood over an interview where he admitted taking illegal drugs.”

And “then one of your MEPs ignored the requirement for quarantine” when he returned from Brussels to attend the Dáil sitting in the Convention Centre.

The Tipperary TD asked: “Are Fianna Fail public representatives above the law and above public health advice?”

He said the Government’s first week had not been a good week and “the modus operandi looks like it’s back to old style cute hoor kind of politics”.

He also hit out at Sinn Féin’s leadership over the controversy about breaking social distancing rules attending two funerals in the North when other families stayed home when their own relatives and friends were buried.

The practice of “exceptionalism” might be expected from Sinn Féin but many thought Fianna Fail had been “humbled” by the recession.

He also criticised the first act of the Minister for Education which he said “was to bellow about a new grant to a school in her own constituency”, during the biggest education crisis to face the State.

Punishment

The country needed a stable Government during the biggest crisis to face the State and people were concerned about housing, health, rents, mortgage arrears and returning to work.

Mr Martin however told Mr Kelly he rejected “your analysis of the first week in Government” and said his focus has been on “policy and substance”.

He said there was an unprecedented amount of legislation they would try to get through in this Government and he had had talks with senior EU officials including the president of the European Commission and British prime minister Boris Johnson.

The Taoiseach said “I haven’t wasted an hour” in dealing with policy.

He said “no politicians should be above the law and no politician is above the law”.

Mr Martin added that punishment “was meted out” to Mr Cowen and he would address the issue in a statement later in the Dáil on Tuesday night.

He stressed the focus on education and not depriving children any longer of schooling and education. He said they would deal with travel and quarantines and they would focus on education and “engaging with the education authorities in terms of returning to school”, and on the return of health services.