Taoiseach dramatically sacks Barry Cowen as minister over drink-driving controversy

TD ‘surprised and disappointed’; move comes amid continuing controversy over drink driving ban

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

 

Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen has been sacked by the Taoiseach after refusing to make a second public statement about a drink driving ban imposed on him four years ago .

In unprecedented 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 which suggested Mr Cowen might have tried to avoid a Garda checkpoint.

Mr Martin seemed to give Mr Cowen strong backing in the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon in the Dáil when questioned by Opposition leaders.

However, less than seven hours later, he announced that he was sacking the Offaly TD from the Ministry, a little over a fortnight after he was appointed to Cabinet.

Former minister for agriculture Barry Cowen. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Former minister for agriculture Barry Cowen. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Mr Martin had been shown the Garda report of the incident for the first time on Tuesday morning. He had discussed it with Mr Cowen and told him he would need to made additional public clarification. However, the Minister refused to do so.

Sometime after Leaders’ Questions, Mr Martin informed the other coalition leaders, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, that he had asked Mr Cowen to consider his position.

Both leaders are said to have agreed with the Taoiseach’s judgement and said they would support the decision. The Taoiseach will appoint a new senior Minister on Wednesday.

In his short statement to the Dáil, Mr Martin said it was his view that “it raised additional issues requiring further explanation and clarification. I made this view clear to him [Mr Cowen] 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,” the Taoiseach said.

Mr Cowen has said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the decision. In a lengthy statement issued on Tuesday evening on Twitter, Mr Cowen criticised the Taoiseach’s decision to sack him on Tuesday evening, only hours after publicly backing him in the Dáil.

“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.

“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 Martin told the Dáil that President Michael D Higgins had on his advice “terminated the appointment of Deputy Barry Cowen as a member of the Government”.

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.

The Taoiseach said it was a “sad day for Barry, his family, and for me. Over the course of the last 10 days, he has been the subject of significant criticism and condemnation for a Road Traffic Offence that took place in 2016.”

He said Mr Cowen “has been completely clear and unambiguous regarding his drink-driving offence. He gave a personal statement to this House on July 7th, in which he talked about the stupidity of his actions, he accepted what he did was absolutely wrong, and he apologised to all members.

“I accepted that his remorse was genuine and I accepted his apology.”

Mr Martin said that when the former minister was first confronted with the allegations, Mr Cowen “was immediately clear and emphatic about his drink-driving offence and understood the need to acknowledge this. However, he was equally clear and emphatic that one detail of the allegation he was being presented with was completely untrue. Namely that he sought to evade gardaí at the time”.

He added: “We have had extensive discussions on this point last evening and again this morning, when he shared with me for the first time the actual Garda record under dispute.

“Following these discussions 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,” Mr Martin said.

“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.”

Mr Martin said: “I am conscious that there are important and legitimate legal processes under way, where Deputy Cowen is questioning the accuracy of the Garda record and seeking to establish how his personal information became public. I have sought to respect these processes and I would ask that colleagues do the same. This decision I have made is without prejudice to those proceedings.

“The challenges facing this Government are unprecedented in scale and the Irish people require nothing less than our full and undivided attention.”

The Taoiseach concluded: “It is in everyone’s interest that the Government not be distracted in any way from doing what is necessary to protect public health and our efforts to rebuild our society and our economy.”

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

Mr Cowen’s full statement:

“The Taoiseach informed me this evening by phone that he was removing me from office as Minister for Agriculture. I am both surprised and disappointed with this decision.

“Previously I furnished the Taoiseach with all the facts about my drink-driving conviction and the story that the Sunday Times proposed to publish about my alleged evasion of a Garda check point. In doing so I provided him with confidential details about my interaction with An Garda Siochana. I have made my position on these matters known publicly and I have acknowledged my wrong doing for something that occurred 4 years ago.

“I have 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

“I am responsible for the offence with which I was convicted four years ago not for an inaccurate Garda entry on Pulse about that event. 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. It is important to re-emphasise that report was leaked in contravention of the protections that I and every other citizen is entitled to expect in respect of their interaction with the 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.”