Drink-driving: the controversy and culture clash behind the new Bill
Analysis: Rural publicans have fought against harsher laws for more than 20 years
The Road Traffic Bill introduced by Minister for Transport Shane Ross has caused divisions. Photograph: iStock
Drink-driving laws in the past have tended to evoke emotion and controversy, with arguments often revolving around its impact on rural life.
More than 20 years ago, The Rainbow Coalition introduced a Bill to reduce the drink driving limit from two drinks to one. 10,000 rural publicans marched on the Dáil to protest, saying the new laws would force them out of business.
The Road Traffic Bill introduced by Minister for Transport Shane Ross during the summer has been no different. Even before the Bill is debated it has caused divisions not only within the main Government party Fine Gael, but - more seriously for Ross - within the five-member Independent Alliance. One of them, its only backbench TD, Sean Canney, has already indicated he will oppose the Bill because he views it as “disproportionate”.
The Bill ostensibly sets out to correct an ‘anomaly’ in the 2010 Act. Until now, those detected with between 50 to 80 microgrammes (µg) of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood did not get a disqualification, but penalty points and a fine of €200 (if it was a first offence).
The Ross Bill proposes to remove the penalty point option in these cases. All drivers detected driving over the limit will receive a disqualification. Drivers will receive a ban of three months duration it is between 50µg and 80µg.
The Minister has made the Bill one of his big crusades in Government and has been backed by the Road Safety Authority. It is partly in response to an increases in road traffic fatalities over the past year.
The RSA chief executive Moya Murdock has said there is “indisputable evidence” underpinning the change. She pointed out that the data pointed to an average seven to eight people being killed each year in accidents where lower alcohol levels were involved.
The Bill has been closely associated with the Independent Alliance, which view it as one of the policy areas where it can show it has made a difference in Government.
However, the open revolt of the Galway East Deputy against the Bill has the potential to dent its efficacy.
Mr Canney has spoken about the detrimental impact the changes in drinking driving laws have had on rural Ireland. Hundreds of country pubs have closed down over the past decade, a phenomenon he says has led to a marked increase in rural isolation. Various initiatives have been tried to provide some form of public transport to rural pubs but none have been successful. A scheme introduced by then-minister Alan Kelly for a hackney-type scheme to ferry people home from pubs has not worked out - only seven such operators are now licensed in the entire State.
Mr Canney is not looking for concessions in exchange for his vote. He will oppose the Bill. “I am not happy with it. I think it is disproportionate. I will not be supporting it.”
His stance has not gone down well with his Independent Alliance colleagues. The Waterford Minister of State John Halligan said yesterday he should have raised them with his colleagues before going public. The other two junior Ministers Finian McGrath and Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran have both said they are subject to the Government whip and will support the Bill. Both said that they strongly support Mr Ross’s initiative. Mr Moran said he had met relatives of victims and was convinced the Bill was the right thing to do.
If there is internal disquiet within the Alliance over Canney’s rebellion, publicly there can be no complaints about his actions. All of the grouping are Independents and have made much about being in favour of a ‘whipless’ parliament. Canney’s stance is therefore consistent with its philosophy. Yesterday a spokeswoman for Mr Ross said he has been aware of Canney’s opposition.
There is a possibility that the Bill might not become law. Fine Gael might allow a free vote to its backbenchers. A number of those, including Pat Deering, Hildegard Naughton, Dara Murphy and Peter Burke have either expressed reservations or said they need to read the evidence behind the change.
Fianna Fáil has already siad it will oppose the Bill, although Sinn Féin will support it. If a free vote occurs, then the Government might rely on non-aligned Independents or smaller parties to progress it through the Dáil.