The Merc – Michael O’Regan on the great political status symbol, the State car

An Irishman’s Diary

The restoration of government cars and garda drivers to senior Ministers, on security grounds, says much about modern politics and the pressures senior politicians are put under. But it also puts the spotlight on what was once the great political status symbol, the State car.

The State car stood out, showed the local TD, appointed to a ministry, had influence at the highest level in Dublin, and could get things done for his or her constituents. Mind you, it was mostly his in those days.

When governments changed, and speculation centred on the new ministers, the conversation was usually about who might get “the car”. In the days when junior ministers, known as parliamentary secretaries and later ministers of state, had State cars, the reference was to the “half-car”.

The State car was usually a black Mercedes and it cut a dash, particularly in rural constituencies, where the standard mode of transport at the time was usually a modest Morris Minor or rusting Ford Escort, or, indeed, a bicycle.

It was, and is, a major perk of the job. The Trinity College academic and astute political commentator Prof Basil Chub had a pragmatic view of the attraction of the perks of office. "Never underestimate the lure of the well-upholstered seat of a ministerial Mercedes,'' he advised.

Some incoming ministers paid much attention to the size of the car, with the Merc the ultimate in grandeur. In the 1970s, a new minister demanded a "car with the star", an appropriate mode of transport in his west of Ireland constituency. Jack Lynch had more parochial ambitions, using a car from Fords in his native Cork, when he was taoiseach. It did not go unnoticed locally.

State cars were used for more than transporting the minister. They frequently became the family car, used for shopping trips and bringing children to and from school. It was said that the long-serving minister and Cavan Fianna Fáil TD Paddy Smith sometimes hitched a trailer of calves to the car when visiting the mart.

A minister, appointed by Charlie Haughey in the 1970s, was so overjoyed by the sight of his new Merc that he gave an interview of remarkable candour to a Dublin journalist. He spoke of how it was marvellous not to have to worry about the cost of car insurance and tyres.

His ministerial colleagues were less than impressed that their innermost thoughts had been revealed.

Some long-serving ministers and taoisigh retained the same garda drivers and they became confidantes and family friends. The garda driver saw a lot, overheard many conversations, and had to be discreet. Hence a newly-appointed minister, delighted with his promotion after waiting for many years, decided to get some advice from a former minister on the qualities required in a driver.

“Discretion,’’ replied the former minister. “In your case, total discretion.’’

The driver-minister relationship did not always work. Some ministers saw the drivers as another human accessory to their distinguished calling. A retired driver told me he quit after spending too many nights waiting outside the minister’s local pub as he socialised with constituents. But generally the relationship was good.

The State car, a retired minister told me, had practical benefits. If you represented a big rural constituency, it did you no harm when the easily identifiable large car was seen in towns and villages. The minister had not forgotten his constituents, despite his elevated status.

When State cars were withdrawn from most ministers, as an austerity measure, things were never the same. Ministers provided their own cars and were paid expenses. The salaries of two civilian drivers were paid. But the absence of the word “State” took from the status of their mode of transport.

In an era when cars are plentiful, and voters view politics with an increasing cynicism, the restored State car will never regain its former status. Nevertheless, it should not be underestimated.

A more innocent time provided great days for the State car and the ministerial passenger. When Fine Gael TD Ted Nealon, who represented Sligo-Leitrim, was made a minister of state in the early 1980s, junior ministers still had State cars.

News reached Leitrim of his promotion and he got a call from a Fine Gael activist to discuss the detail of a rally to welcome the new minister. When Nealon said that he would be in Leitrim within days, the Fine Gael activist bluntly replied that the minister was a secondary consideration. “We want to see the car,’’ he said. The State car was bigger than the minister!