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 the Sunday 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.