Personal Explanation by Minister

Before proceeding to Private Members' business and the Sinn Féin motion, I have been asked by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Cowen, if he may make a personal explanation to the House. In accordance with Standing Order 56, I have decided to permit a personal explanation from the Minister and the floor is his.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to make a personal statement to the House and to officially put on the record the facts relating to an incident that took place four years ago, in September 2016, and which has been the subject of media controversy over recent days. While I have co-operated with print and broadcast media inquiries since the issue emerged last Friday, I felt it was necessary and important as a matter of courtesy and respect to offer the Ceann Comhairle and all my peers in Dáil Éireann an explanation.

On 18 September 2016, I travelled to attend the All-Ireland football final with a friend. Before the match, I consumed two drinks and following the game, had a light meal before driving home to Offaly. On the way to drop my friend home, I was stopped by gardaí and asked to participate in a breathalyser test. I did so and both this test and a subsequent test at the local Garda station confirmed that I was over the legal alcohol limit. At the time, I held a learner driving permit because my previous provisional licence had lapsed. As such, the penalty for my offence was a €200 fine and a three-month driving ban. I subsequently secured and now hold a full, clean driving licence.

There has been some speculation about how someone of my age could have been driving on either a learner permit or provisional licence. The fact is that before the recent and proper reforms of the system, it was not uncommon for people of all ages and levels of experience to drive with either a provisional licence or learner permit. However, this was bad practice and I clearly should have regularised my position much sooner.

Discussion surrounding this incident has now extended to include reporting of various parking and speeding fines that I have incurred over the years. I am conscious that a constant drip feed of new information can be damaging and destabilising and it is for that reason that I conducted a full examination of all records that I could obtain. The only additional event that I have been able to identify that was not reported this morning was a failure to display a tax disc while parked in Tullamore 14 years ago, for which I paid a fine. While I absolutely respect the right of media outlets to do their jobs, I would genuinely hope that such infractions which I suspect many of us in this House have had to deal with in our lives would not be conflated with the altogether different offence of drink-driving for which I am responsible.

My decision in September 2016 to drive home after consuming any alcohol was a stupid, stupid mistake. It never happened before 18 September 2016 and it has never happened since. It is a mistake for which I am profoundly sorry. The emergence of this issue into the public domain has put an intense spotlight on me and on the shame, more importantly the shame, of drink-driving. The criticism that I have attracted for such a serious lack and lapse of judgment is fully deserved. This grave error and my subsequent humiliation will hopefully serve to highlight the terrible dangers and consequences of drink-driving.

I have apologised to my family, the Taoiseach, the Government, my constituents and the general public. Earlier today, I spoke with Susan Gray of Promoting Awareness, Responsibility and Care, PARC, road safety group and Donna Price of the Irish Road Victims Association, offering them an apology for the impact and hurt that this event has obviously had on many victims. I also offered to help and assist insofar as I can, or others should, to help rid us of the scourge of drunk driving and the example that I set.

I now formally, on the record of the House, sincerely apologise to my peers and colleagues. It is a source of deep regret that my actions have reflected poorly on the work of elected representatives and on my party. I assure the House that I will invest my full energy and focus on the responsibility I have been given as a Deputy and a Minister. Today, for example, and I do not think it is wrong that I say so in relation to this deliberation, I have had separate meetings with EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan, and the Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots, ensuring Ireland's agriculture, food and fishery sectors and their interests remain best served in advance of or after an EU-UK trade deal and ensuring the structures provided and foreseen by previous Governments and patriots within it, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement which maximises the potential economic benefit of an all-island economy and manifested, thankfully, in the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit withdrawal deal.

This evening I met Coillte and the forestry officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, agreeing short-term measures to overcome a potential crisis in the timber harvesting industry which could gravely and severely affect our capacity to respond as promised to the ongoing housing crisis. It is the likes of that work and future work of its kind that I would rather be remembered for. I will continue to represent the people of Laois and Offaly, loyal and faithful people, to the best of my ability. I will dedicate myself to deliver on the promise that is contained in the programme for Government. That is a programme for Government that I worked arduously, hard and effectively with others and with new colleagues to finalise and eventually to allow it to be put before this House after five months of hard work. I commend it to the House and hope it is successful and that this country gets what it deserves in respect of a stable Government. That is politics for another day. Today is about informing this House and my peers of my misdemeanour.