Adjournment Debate. Regional Airports. - Ministerial Transport.

There is a broad range of circumstances in which cars used by members of the Garda Síochána in the performance of their duties should be exempt from the speed limits prescribed under the road traffic Acts. Gardaí in pursuit of the perpetrators of crime, gardaí attempting to prevent the commission of a crime, gardaí in pursuit of subversives, gardaí seeking to prevent a prison break-out or to recapture an absconding prisoner or gardaí going to the scene of a serious accident and many other circumstances not only permit but require gardaí to exceed speed limits. It is also accepted that gardaí appointed to drive ministerial cars may exceed the speed limit where reasons of State require them to do so. It is true, but regrettable, that the heavy schedule of Ministers in successive Governments frequently requires that they travel at speed from one location to another and the Garda driver, acting in the course of his duty, is exempt from the speed limits.

Unlike some of those who made public comment, I will not criticise the Minister for the use by members of his family of the State car allocated to him. There are sound security reasons why the Taoiseach and Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform or indeed other Government Ministers may permit the use of their car to transport spouses and children which may not be properly understood by the general public. However, unless the family members being carried in the State car are under a real threat or very exceptional circumstances have arisen, there is no justification for the car in which they are passengers exceeding speed limits imposed by the road traffic Acts.

I asked yesterday morning, Sir, that this issue be dealt with on the Adjournment tonight because at that time I knew that the car assigned to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform had been pursued as a result of its travelling at 90 miles per hour. I understood that when pursued it had travelled at speeds up to 115 miles per hour. Yesterday morning the Minister refused to state the destination of the car, the passengers in it or the circumstances which compelled the car to travel at such speed. Later yesterday the Minister allowed himself to be interviewed by Radio Kerry. During that interview he came across as evasive and economical with the truth. It was not until 5.45 p.m. yesterday, under pressure in an RTE radio interview, that he admitted his State car was stopped when his wife and children and an unidentified family friend were in the car travelling home from an All-Ireland Hurling Final in Croke Park. He rather curiously stated that "it appeared" he was not in the car, as if uncertain. He has yet to clarify exactly when this incident occurred and whether his State car has been involved in a short period in more than one such incident.

Last evening the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform apologised for the incident that he discussed. He should also apologise to this House for his going into hiding for almost 48 hours on this issue, following publication on Saturday evening of the first edition of theSunday World. He should apologise for his evasiveness and refusal to explain fully the background circumstances. If the Minister had issued a comprehensive explanatory statement early on Sunday morning and assured the general public that State cars would not in future, in such circumstances, exceed the speed limit, that might have been an end of the issue. Instead, he chose to treat the matter as if it was some type of official secret and that national security would be imperilled if he told the full story.

His failure to be up front about the excessively speeding State car became a Fianna Fáil political mystery. His behaviour during Sunday and most of Monday exposes as shallow political rhetoric Fianna Fáil's professed commitment to a new openness and transparency.

On average 400 people lose their lives on our roads every year and the majority do so as a consequence of vehicles travelling at excessive speed. The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, is one of the members of the Government centrally involved in the latest road safety campaign and initiatives. One of the central messages of the campaign is that speed kills. The Minister built his political reputation, when in Opposition, with the much-repeated soundbite commitment to zero tolerance. By the manner in which he has dealt with this issue the Minister has yet again shown zero confidence. It took almost 48 hours of relentless publicity and questioning to force the Minister out into the open and to verbally bludgeon him into acknowledging that it was unacceptable that his State car, in the circumstances now known, should travel at such excessive speed. It is also unacceptable that his apology was half-hearted and that he felt the need to explain confusingly that not only are Garda drivers expertly trained to travel at such speeds but that also his driver, on the night in question, did not realise he was travelling so fast until he heard the siren of the Garda patrol in hot pursuit.

The Minister, by his approach to this issue in the past two days, lacks credibility as one of those fronting the Government's road safety campaign and his professed commitment to zero tolerance in the eyes of many people lies in tatters.

I have already acknowledged publicly that the broad outline of what has been carried in the media about this matter is correct. It would appear from the detail in the original newspaper article that it refers to an incident where the Garda car allocated to me was travelling on the Abbeyfeale to Castleisland road on 10 September when, sometime after midnight – that is early on the morning of 11 September – it was stopped by the Garda for exceeding the speed limit. According to the official Garda report supplied to me this afternoon the speed detected was 86 miles per hour.

I have openly made it known that the passengers in the car were my wife and children along with a family friend, all of whom were returning from Dublin, where they had spent the day with me attending the All-Ireland Hurling Final. I have stated publicly also that while I was not in the car myself on that occasion – because I had to remain in Dublin for business reasons – I nevertheless accept responsibility for what happened. I have said that I very much regret what happened and I now do so again in this House.

It would be all too easy for me to seek to disown responsibility in relation to an incident of speeding over which I had no personal control. I am not a member of an Administration that believes in seeking heads on plates to avoid taking their own political responsibility. I am conscious too, as I am sure are many other Members, of the loyal and dedicated service given by Garda ministerial drivers through the years. For people to seek to claim that an incident of unwarranted speeding by a Garda driver has implications for the formulation or advancement of Government policy, is to stand commonsense on its head and to enter the realms of the absurd.

Driving at unwarranted speed, no matter who is driving or being driven, is a serious matter and it is perfectly understandable, when an incident like this comes to public notice, that the matter should be the subject of adverse public comment and also the subject of discussion in this House. What is less understandable, however, is the pretence that this was an incident which was totally without precedent. As anybody on the other side of the House who has had the privilege of being in the Cabinet will know, occasions can and do arise where ministerial cars exceed the speed limit. Anybody over there who wants to pretend that this practice only started when this Government came into office is fooling nobody, least of all the public we serve.

I am acknowledging that this was not the only occasion on which my car was stopped. I am also saying, in no uncertain terms, that other Ministers in the past, including Justice Ministers, have been stopped and that some of them have certainly been stopped more than once.

I sincerely doubt if there is a party in the House which can claim that none of its Ministers ever had the experience of being stopped in their official cars for exceeding the speed limit. Ex-Ministers in the Opposition benches know this to be true. Many others in the Opposition benches also know it to be true.

Deputy Shatter has not had the privilege or experience of being a Minister but if he has a word, privately, with ex-Ministers in his own party – some of whom, incidentally, retained their official transport when they left office, for which I believe there were valid reasons – they will put him wise to the fact that they too were stopped for speeding from time to time.

I have resisted the temptation to ask the Garda for the details as regards speeding involving former Ministers because, quite frankly, they have better things to do with their time than assist the process of political mud slinging.

Although I have put the facts into the public domain in this case as quickly as I could, there are some people, including Deputy Shatter apparently, who feel that I should have done so immediately the matter received some publicity. As I explained in a radio interview yesterday, I had the difficulty of trying to reconcile the date cited in the media – 6-7 September – with the facts. The incident occurred on the morning of 11 September, not on 6 or 7 September. In addition, according to the information in the media report, the garda who stopped the car believed that I was a passenger in the car. I am now certain, however, that this was not the case and I am informed by the Garda authorities that the garda in question cannot say who was in the car.

I had to have facts before I went public and I make no apology for doing the necessary checks. All Ministers and ex-Ministers are well aware of the risks of making public statements when there is disagreement or confusion about the basic facts. It should be pointed out that people in south Kerry are not fortunate enough to obtain a copy of theSunday World on Saturday night – we get it on Sunday morning.

Is the Minister not worried that the garda on duty would not recognise him?

The Minister should respond to what I said.

Allow the Minister to continue without interruption.

As to the legal position in general, my advice is that ministerial cars are Garda cars driven by Garda drivers who have completed special advanced driving courses. The Garda authorities are responsible for the maintenance and operation of the cars. I am also advised that "vehicles used by members of the Garda Síochána in the performance of their duties as such members" are specifically excepted by regulation from the speed limits prescribed. This is done pursuant to section 46 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, which provides that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government may prescribe by regulation speed limits and such regulations may provide for exceptions to those limits. It is not for me, of course, to decide how the law should or should not be applied in any particular case.

Much has been made of the fact that the car was being used on 11 September not by me but by members of my family. Again, Deputies know there is nothing unusual in this. They know that State cars are available to the users on a 24 hour per day basis and that it has been the case, historically, that they may be used for both official and private purposes. In this regard it is interesting to look at the Official Report of the Dáil. In answer to a parliamentary question on 10 December 1970, the then Minister stated that an official car is placed at the disposal of a Minister for use as if the car were his own private property, which has been the rule continuously since 1940.

Deputies also know, or at least should know, that since 1979 the availability of an official car for private use by Ministers has specifically been taken into account by the review body on higher remuneration in the public sector in its recommendations on the appropriate levels of remuneration for the office holder concerned.

The matter of private use of ministerial cars has been the subject of a force directive by the Garda Commissioner. The directive states: "Carriage of civilian passengers in official vehicles is prohibited except in the following circumstances.". A number of circumstances are cited, including: "Conveyance of persons in official vehicles allocated to ministerial fleet, VIPs and to senior Garda officers with the authorisation of Minister, VIP or senior Garda officer to whom the vehicle is allocated."

If the Deputies believe that this should be changed, by all means let them say so. However, they cannot blame me or anybody else for the fact that they never saw the merit in changing the rules about private use of ministerial cars when they were in office and they cannot now proceed to claim the high moral ground because I have used official transport in the same way they did. I have been more sparing in the use of official cars than were most of them when in office.

With regard to the public contributions of Opposition Deputies, the comments which will strike most people for the humbug they amount to are those in which Deputy Shatter sought to make play on the fact that, as Minister, I have taken a firm policy on crime. I make no apology to Deputy Shatter for this. My policies have seen the previous years of neglect finally addressed. What for example, did the party of which the Deputy is a member do about the scandal of the so-called revolving door syndrome in our prisons when his party was in office?

On a point of order, the Minister has been speaking for approximately eight minutes. If he intends to give a Second Stage speech on crime, it is inappropriate.

The Minister's five minutes have concluded.

I have closed that door. When I took office in 1997 there were 2,470 persons in custody with nearly 530 people out on temporary release. By July of this year, there were more than 3,000 people in custody with only 219 on temporary release.

Do the Deputies wish to give the Minister time to conclude his address?

I have increased the strength of the Garda Síochána from 10,800 to more than 11,400 and we are on target to reach 12,000 by 2002. I have also increased the financial provision for the force by 47%, from £457 million in 1997 to £672 million in 2000.

We have heard that rubbish before.

Stop digging.

I ask the Minister to draw his remarks to a conclusion.

I have been responsible for promoting a more extensive legislation programme than any of my predecessors. Most importantly, the public are reaping the benefits.

I ask the Minister to conclude. The five minutes allowed in Standing Orders have long since concluded.

What about all the crime on the streets in Dublin this summer? What has the Minister done?

Recorded crime has fallen by more than 20% since this Government took office. No amount of Deputy Shatter's snide comment about zero tolerance can dispose of the fact that the crime policies which I have pursued are working. Snide comment, Deputy, is no substitute for substance.

Is the Minister entitled to continue speaking when his time has expired?

I ask the Minister to draw his remarks to a conclusion.

In summary, I do not believe that what happened on this occasion should have happened and I regret it did. I do not believe that driving at unwarranted speed on our roads is acceptable for anybody. It is understandable that an incident of this nature should be the subject of discussion in this House.

I ask the Minister to—

I am also saying, loud and clear, that there is not a single aspect of what happened on this occasion on which the Opposition can claim moral superiority.

—respect the Chair and draw his remarks to a conclusion.

The fact that Ministers from all sides have had similar experiences in the past does not provide an excuse for me or anybody else, but the Deputies opposite—

Chairman, I look forward to being given 12 minutes to speak in the next Adjournment debate.

—are certainly deprived of credibility in the public mind when what should be a genuine and understandable expression of concern about speeding—

I ask the Minister to draw his remarks to a conclusion.

—is turned into self-righteous moralising for transparently political purposes.