Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he had no idea newly-appointed Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen had been convicted of drink driving in 2016.
Mr Cowen is to make a statement in the Dáil on Tuesday about the controversy surrounding his driving ban.
Mr Cowen was disqualified from driving for three months after he pleaded guilty to drink driving on his way home from the All-Ireland football final.
“I didn’t know it (about Mr Cowen’s drink driving conviction), I wasn’t aware and he certainly didn’t make me aware at the time – it seems from his perspective, he was very ashamed of it and he’s said that,” the Taoiseach said on Monday.
“He’s acknowledged that he didn’t say it to me or to colleagues because he was deeply ashamed and embarrassed at the fact that incident occurred back in 2016 and it was a terrible lapse of judgement on his part.
“He’s made a full apology and justice was meted out to him in accordance with the law at the time,” said Mr Martin, adding he didn’t know why Mr Cowen was driving on a provisional licence at the time at the age of 49.
It is understood Mr Cowen has made contact with the office of the Ceann Comhairle to arrange speaking time. The Dáil’s business committee met on Monday afternoon to consider the request.
Mr Cowen said over the weekend: “Maybe I should have stood up in the Dáil, and led from the front and acknowledged my stupid mistake.
“I was not trying to keep it secret, I was trying to get on with my job.”
Separately, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that Mr Cowen was wrong to have been drink-driving but added she has accepted his apology.
Ms McEntee, who was visiting Slane Garda station in Co Meath where she held a meeting with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, said the incident “shouldn’t have happened”.
She added that the focus of the new Government should be on road victims and their families. “What happened was wrong. It shouldn’t have happened and I think the minister has acknowledged what he did was wrong and I think what’s important at the time is that the law was applied,” Ms McEntee added. “Obviously what was given out to the minister, he accepted it and took that as he should have. “I think we need to focus on victims, those who have lost family members due to drink-driving, making sure that we have measures in place that protect people, that make our roads as safe as possible. “Obviously there was a huge amount of changes implemented in the last government and we want to continue to implement them.
“I don’t agree with what happened, he has apologised, I accept that and I think it’s important that the law was applied.”
Road safety campaigner Susan Gray said it “beggars belief” that Mr Cowen would appear to have been driving on a provisional licence for years.
Mrs Gray, whose husband Steve was killed in 2004 by an unaccompanied learner driver in Inishowen, Co Donegal, said Mr Cowen has a lot of questions to answer when he makes a personal statement in the Dáil on Tuesday about it.
Mr Cowen was banned from driving for three months and fined €200 in 2016 when he was found to have been over the limit after attending the All-Ireland football final.
It subsequently emerged that he would have been under the limit had he been driving on a full licence rather than a provisional one.
Mrs Gray, who set up the organisation PARC (Promoting Awareness Responsibility and Care on our roads) in 2006 after her husband’s death, said Mr Cowen had received his punishment for drink driving and she is not calling, as the Irish Road Victims’ Association has called, for his resignation.
However, she stressed she had “grave concern that apparently for years and years” Mr Cowen had been driving around on a learner permit.
Given he was a man in his late 40s she told RTÉ’s Six-One new “it beggars belief that he hadn’t passed his driving test at that age.
Mrs Gray said PARC has a list of questions for Mr Cowen which it wants him to answer.
How long had he been on a learner permit?
Did he ever sit a test or did the Road Safety Authority renew his permit “time and time again”?
Did he drive unaccompanied to and from the Dáil between 2011 and 2016 after he was elected as a TD and did he display his L plates?
When did he pass his driving test?
If he passed his test, does he have a N for novice sign that all those who had recently passed their test are supposed to display for two years?
Mrs Gray said the incident highlighted an ongoing issue where the RSA will continually issue provisional licences provided a motorist books a driving test, even if that motorist does not sit the test.
She said 19,000 learner drivers did not turn up for their driving test last year, but their provisional licences were renewed once they paid €85.
She suggested it was now a “great opportunity” to make it mandatory that a learner driver should not have their provisional licence renewed unless they take the driving test first.
“We have been campaigning to make the learner driver laws stronger and here is Barry Cowen a minister who has lots of questions to answer,” she said.
“Is there one law for us ordinary folk and another law for those who are making the laws in the Dáil. All those questions have to be answered before we would call for his resignation.”