Rural TDs call time on drink-driving provision in Bill
Filibustering TDs frustrate passage of proposal described by Minister as ‘life saving’
Bill will ban first-time driving offenders for three months if caught with blood-alcohol of between 50mg/100ml and 80mg/100ml. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times
When Independent TD Mattie McGrath was interrupted in full Dáil flow about controversial road traffic legislation last week he was on his feet for more than two hours.
Most other TDs had addressed the House for just 10 to 15 minutes on the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill which will automatically ban first-time driving offenders for three months if caught with blood-alcohol levels of between 50 milligrams/100 millilitres and 80 milligrams/100 millilitres.
The Bill also strengthens penalties for car owners who allow unaccompanied learner drivers on the road in their vehicles and provides for the seizure of cars used by lone learner permit holders.
The learner drivers provision was being debated when Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy used a rarely used rule – section 68 – to end the filibuster on this particular amendment. Numerous other amendments have yet to be considered when a repeat is highly possible.
The technicalities in relation to the “recommittal” of an amendment or section of a Bill, as in this case, meant there was no speaking time limits. “You could speak for the next month,” said Murphy.
“We had gone through hours and hours of debate” almost exclusively taken up by the rural TDs, Mattie McGrath and Kerry Independents Danny Healy-Rae and Michael Healy-Rae.
“We were hearing things important in their own right but they didn’t relate to the amendments and there was a lot of repetition,” she said.
The Independent TDs have fiercely defended their stance, even though Sinn Féin, most parties and Independents have accepted the Bill. Fianna Fáil has acknowledged its passage is inevitable.
McGrath insisted he was representing his constituents and claimed the Bill was predicated on false statistics.
But Murphy said the Road Safety Authority did detailed research from individual inquests.
Michael Healy-Rae claimed Minister for Transport Shane Ross “is criminalising young people and their parents who drive on provisional licences and that is totally wrong”, in rural areas with poor public transport infrastructure.
But this has enraged road safety campaigners, including people whose relatives died in crashes caused by unaccompanied learner drivers.
Several of them sat in the Dáil’s public gallery over weeks of debate and filibustering, including Alec Lee. His 15-year-old daughter Carol was killed in 2001 as a passenger in a car in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, driven by a 17-year-old learner driver who also died in the crash.
A member of the Parc road safety campaign group, he is scathing of the rural TDs in the Dáil. “They’re taking the piss out of us,” he said, describing McGrath and the Healy-Rae brothers as “the three stooges”.
Lee said “they are only encouraging people to drive illegally,” both as learner drivers and by drink-driving.
At committee and again in the Dáil, Danny Healy-Rae said that “a pint and a half pint” did not make anyone a drink-driver.
Lee angrily rejected those comments. “Just because you don’t like a law it doesn’t mean you can ignore it. You can’t make a different law for rural Ireland.” He added that “more lives are lost in rural Ireland on the roads”.
The amendment to seize cars from unaccompanied learner drivers has been championed by Noel Clancy whose wife Geraldine and daughter Louise were killed by a learner driver in December 2015.
Minister for Transport Shane Ross said the rural TDs “are using every ploy in the book to delay this life-saving measure”.
Ross said they were also speaking for longer on other Bills to prevent the Road Safety Bill getting to the floor of the House. He added that the second or introductory stage had already taken longer at more than 10 hours than the entire nine hours spent on 2016 road legislation.
Rather than encouraging motorists to drink a pint-and-a-half or more, he said Danny Healy-Rae ought to be supporting the rural transport initiative. This is a six-month pilot scheme with 50 new bus services across 19 counties to tackle social isolation in rural areas.
The Bill is scheduled for hearing again this week. The Minister and TDs supportive of it are waiting to see what happens. But the rural TDs remain defiant and early passage of the legislation remains unlikely.