FINIAN McGrath has said he was “wrong” to suggest that Gardaí have become politicised in the wake of the government’s drink-driving crackdown.
It came after a slap-down from justice minister Charlie Flanagan, who labelled Mr McGrath’s remarks as “bizarre”, “unwise” and “even dangerous”.
Mr McGrath, an Independent Alliance junior minister released a statement saying he is withdrawing his comments which he made in an interview with the Sunday Independent.
He said: “Nobody is more supportive of the work An Garda Siochana does – often in tough circumstances- than I am.
“My comments in this morning’s Sunday Independent were prompted by concerns raised with me over the past number of weeks.
“I acknowledge that these concerns were wrong and I am happy to withdraw my comments.
“I am also happy to state that I have full confidence in An Garda Siochana and that I was wrong to suggest there was any element of politicising within the Force over the new drink driving regulations.”
This comes after Mr McGrath made the astonishing claim that gardai are carrying out unnecessary roadside breathalyser checks because they oppose new road safety laws.
Mr McGrath said the implementation of controversial drink- driving laws by gardai has been “really over the top” and suggested that this is part of an “agenda” within the force to damage the Government.
The Minister of State for Disability Issues even called on Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to intervene and “de-politicise” the country’s police force as part of his ongoing reforms of An Garda Siochana.
“A police force – like teachers, nurses – guards should always be non-political,” Mr McGrath said.
“I would like Drew Harris now, as part of the reforms we have, to de-politicise anything like that in a police force.”
Mr McGrath claimed that he had received complaints about gardai breathalysing parents picking up their children from school and on the way to Mass on Sunday mornings.
“To me, the breathalysing time should be at pub closing time between 12 o’clock and 2am in the morning. That’s where the focus should be, so I don’t know what agenda is going on there,” he added.
The extraordinary comments follow ongoing tensions within the Government over the enactment of strict new road safety laws introduced by Transport Minister Shane Ross.
The road traffic legislation introduced an automatic three-month driving ban for first-time offenders caught over the limit.
Before the law was enacted, motorists caught drink-driving were given three penalty points but no ban for their first offence.
Road safety legislation banning unaccompanied learner drivers from driving was also bitterly resisted by government and opposition TDs before it was signed into law last year.
Mr McGrath claims gardai are now specifically blaming Mr Ross for the new laws when they are stopping motorists at checkpoints.
“If you’re a public servant, you’re working and you’re paid by the State and you’re paid by the taxpayer, you stay out of any subtle kind of thing whether it is a garda checkpoint saying ‘oh I blame that Shane Ross, that’s his fault’,” he says.
“That is being said at checkpoints. That’s not good enough. That would not be tolerated in any other profession.”
Asked if he believes gardai are doing this because they are unhappy with the new laws, Mr McGrath says: “I think they are trying to make a point and they are not happy about it [the laws].
“The law is there, implement the law, you’re a civil servant, you’re a public servant, get on with it… some of them don’t like the law, yes, I suspect that’s part of the angle and they are saying ‘well blame the Government’ and I don’t like that.”
Mr McGrath says TDs from Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein have told him they have heard reports of gardai blaming Mr Ross and the Government for roadside breathalyser tests.
Mr McGrath also took aim at Fine Gael ministers and TDs who he says are using Mr Ross as a “fall guy” for concerns raised by people living in rural Ireland.
“Government ministers and backbenchers should cop on to themselves,” he said.
“It’s a collective group of Independents and Fine Gael in government and it’s not one person who’s responsible for the problems in rural Ireland.
“I think that he’s a very easy fall guy and I think that Shane is being used by some of them as a battering ram and I don’t like that.
“I think it’s very unfair and it’s been spun by some within our own Government and also some of the opposition party, so I don’t think it’s fair and we’re doing our best for rural Ireland.”
Mr McGrath says the Government had to “bite the bullet” and push through Mr Ross’s laws on drink-driving and unaccompanied learner drivers despite the move meeting resistance in some parts of the country.
Speaking this morning, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said that Mr McGrath’s comments were “bewildering and bizarre”.
“Allegations of ‘political policing’ are unwise, even dangerous,” Mr Flanagan added.
Fine Gael junior minister Patrick O’Donovan joined Mr Flanagan in branding Mr McGrath’s comments as “bizarre” and adding that he found them “absolutely unbelievable”.
It was Mr McGrath’s Independent Alliance colleague, transport minister Shane Ross, who championed tougher drink driving rules.
The Alliance this afternoon released a statement welcoming Mr McGrath’s climbdown on policing of road safety legislation by An Garda Siochana.
It said: “While every member of the Independent Alliance is entitled to voice their views, it is only right that Minister McGrath withdrew those remarks.
“The Independent Alliance fully supports the implementation of new drink driving legislation by An Garda Siochana and recognise the hard work of the Force on a daily basis in Ireland.”
Separately, Mr McGrath says there are not enough gardai on the streets in Dublin and people in his constituency are being “tormented every night by anti-social behaviour”.
“They want to see a cop or two walking around the area and that is not happening and we have more guards than we ever had before. That is the issue.
“There has to be a radical restructuring and management of the garda has to up its game as far as I am concerned,” he says.