'Drink is not the issue, rural isolation is'
on 24/01/2013 00:00:00
In the midst of all the commotion generated by Danny Healy-Rae's call for permits to allow rural people drive after consuming alcohol a little over the legal limit, the essential elements of what he is at are being largely missed.
The twin core issues are isolation and transport - not drink. And nobody is more surprised than the controversial, non-drinking councillor about all the commotion that has been generated by his motion, one of 31 down for decision at an ordinary Kerry County Council meeting.
The fact is that his father Jackie, a retired TD and a moderate drinker, has been opposing strict drink-driving legislation since the 1990s because of the affect it is having on rural people.
It's not the first time that demands have been made for special provision in the law for rural drivers. The Healy-Raes are asking: why all the fuss now, what's new? If anything, it's the media in all its modern forms that's gone over the top, not the dynastic Kerry political family which sees itself as a voice of rural Ireland.
The person Danny Healy-Rae has in mind could be a stereotypical bachelor farmer, living alone and getting on years, several miles from his nearest pub, which is often his only social outlet. He goes there for the company, enjoys a few drinks, and learns what's happening in the parish.
Many of these men are not heavy drinkers and could spend an hour, or more, over a pint. Their homes could be miles away down a long bohereen and they might not meet another car on their journey.
Neither are they the kind of people who are involved in headline-grabbing fatal accidents, after consuming vast amounts of alcohol or other drugs.
But many of these normally law-abiding people are now afraid to drive even after one drink, so they opt to stay at home. Small towns and villages don't have taxis, though some have hackneys. Public transport doesn't exist.
It seems that many urban people, who can walk to a pub, get a bus, Luas, or taxi, lack empathy with their country cousins on this issue, which is also part of the deep-felt consensus that rural Ireland is being ruthlessly robbed of services.
Take the Healy-Raes' native Kilgarvan. The village once had six pubs; now it has two. Until recently, it had a police presence since the days of the RIC, in the 19th century, but its Garda station has now closed.
On Tuesday, I visited the Kilgarvan/Kenmare area to sound out local reaction to the Healy-Rae motion. I called to three pubs and not one drinker would agree to talk on the record. They said they were afraid. And one of the three publicans also refused to talk, citing the same reason.
But, one thing is certain - there is support in rural areas for Danny Healy-Rae's proposal.
Some in the media might try to portray the Healy-Raes as caricature Kerrymen straight out of a John B Keane play, but they are a deal smarter than they are often given credit for.
Jackie Healy-Rae made an interesting observation, this week. He congratulated the gardaí who, he maintained, could be 'a lot tougher' on rural drivers.
A transport solution - that would also include people going to pubs - could help tackle isolation. Publicans, who have an obvious vested interest, have tried to get systems going in some areas with limited success. Other publicans regularly drive their customers home.
Drinkers, of course, could also contribute to the cost of a dedicated pub transport service which, for practical reasons, would probably only operate at night.
The Healy-Raes have no chance of changing the drink driving laws, but at least the important issue of rural isolation has been highlighted.
However, the fact the five councillors who voted for the motion are publicans, or people closely associated with the trade, sends out the wrong message.
Danny Healy-Rae and other elected representatives might achieve more, and get wider support, by concentrating on the essential isolation problem and on setting up decent transport systems for everyone in rural Ireland, not just drinkers.
Leo Varadkar: Fears for country's reputation.
nIreland's international image has been damaged by Kerry County Council's bid to allow rural motorists to break drink-drive laws, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar has warned.
Worldwide headlines were generated after the local authority voted to lobby the Government to allow special permits for country dwellers allowing them up to three drinks in a bid to ease social isolation.
Mr Varadkar dismissed the stance and expressed fears for the country's reputation as a result.
"I don't agree with it, and it doesn't really send out a very good message international about Ireland.
"Councillors are entitled to pass any motion they like and it is not for me to proscribe to them, but what is the case is that our cities are now very safe.
"Dublin is now the safest capital in Europe, our motorway network is very safe, and actually most of the accidents are happening in rural areas and on country roads, and while rural isolation is a real problem, and I accept that, the solution isn't to hand out drink-driving permits."
The minister's views were echoed by Road Safety Authority chief executive Noel Brett.
"The evidence is irrefutable, the consumption of alcohol impairs driving. We need to send out a good message about road safety in Ireland."
Councillors voted five to three in favour of the permits with all other members of the authority absent or abstaining.
- Shaun Connolly