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October 30, 2014

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The media needs to show balance and fairness on the drink driving issue

Dr Ruairi Hanley wonders if our attitude to politicians who are caught driving under the influence of alcohol

Dr Ruairi Hanley

can be diluted by the media’s political allegiance.

I shall begin this week by asking a simple question: which current Cabinet Minister has a conviction for drink driving?

I suspect the majority of readers would probably struggle to provide the correct answer. I will enlighten them shortly. However, before I do so, let me pose another question: how many of you remember the antics of Dr Jim McDaid? Back in 2005, the former Fianna Fáil TD was caught driving the wrong way up a dual carriageway while substantially over the legal alcohol limit.

I think it is fair to say this particular episode received significant media coverage. Jim’s adventures on the M7 are undoubtedly forever lodged in the memory of anyone who even glanced at a newspaper at that time.

Now, let us return to the Cabinet Member who also has a drink driving conviction, one that, unlike Jim McDaid’s, seems to have been largely forgotten. The offence in question took place in 1991 and the individual found guilty was then the deputy leader of a political party, having previously served as a cabinet minister. He went on to lead that party, before being appointed Minister for Finance in December 1994. In 2011, he returned to Cabinet as Minister for Education.

Yes indeed, it is Minister Ruairi Quinn, who I believe holds the dubious honour of being the most senior politician in the history of the State to have been previously caught driving under the influence.

The full details of this case are as follows. (For the record, these have been obtained from the Irish Times archive of January 22, 1992.)

Deputy Quinn was driving erratically at 2.49am on March 10, 1991, in the Clontarf area. He was intercepted by Garda Michael McConalogue, who said that the vehicle driven by the TD had “broken the continuous white line a number of times. Cars coming towards him had to slow down and veer to the left”.

Ban and fine

When the Garda stopped Mr Quinn, he walked in an “unsteady manner” to the rear of his car. A strong smell of alcohol was noted from him, while his eyes were described as “glazed”. At Clontarf Garda Station, Deputy Quinn provided a urine sample, which showed him to have an impressive “202mg of alcohol for 100ml of urine”. The man now responsible for the education of the children of Ireland was banned from driving for a year and fined £250. However, he was congratulated by the judge for having shown courtesy to the gardaí.

Now that we have established what happened, I must ask why this entire incident appears to have disappeared from our national recollection. Readers might think I am being harsh here. I invite them to consult the Wikipedia entry for ‘Ruairi Quinn’, from which the drink driving conviction is noticeably absent.

Next, I suggest that they review the biography of Jim McDaid on the same website, where his escapade on the dual carriageway is well documented. Wikipedia even clarifies that Jim managed to have a blood alcohol level of 267mg.

This apparent inconsistency is not confined to the Internet. On April 29, the Sunday Independent magazine ran a glossy four-page spread on the Minister. We were told all about his religious views, medical history and indeed his political career dating back to the 1960s. Under the heading ‘Radical Chic’, readers were informed that Ruairi Quinn’s office is “impeccably tasteful”.  But of the events in Clontarf back in 1991, there was no mention.

At this point, I would like to state that I am not for a moment suggesting that Ruairi Quinn has attempted to conceal his record. He bears no responsibility whatsoever for what journalists or online biographers choose to write about him. Indeed, in 1992 he did not contest the charges in court and behaved respectfully towards the gardaí doing their duty.

However, I must ask if I am the only person who is vaguely disturbed by the fact that our Minister for Education is a convicted drink-driver? I also must ask why, when he was appointed to this office in 2011, not one prominent journalist in the State raised this issue? I cannot but wonder if a similar degree of apparent media reticence would have greeted the reappointment of Jim McDaid to Cabinet?

Medical Council

Furthermore, as a member of the medical profession, I understand that if I received a drink driving conviction, I would face possible sanction and disciplinary action from the Medical Council. My right to practise and professional reputation would thus be placed in jeopardy. Yet, in stark contrast, it appears that prominent politicians can go on to enjoy massively successful careers after such events.

Second chance

My view on this matter is simple. Everyone makes mistakes in life and everyone is entitled to a second chance. There is no doubt that Ruairi Quinn has achieved much that is good for our society in his career to date and that the incident was out of character. I recognise he is far from the only TD who has been found guilty of this crime.

Nonetheless, when it comes to drink-driving, I think it is only fair that our media be required to show consistency, balance and fairness, regardless of political allegiance.

In this case, it appears many journalists have chosen not to do so. Only they can explain why.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?