TRANSPORT Minister Noel Dempsey was last night on a collision course with hard-core Fianna Fáil rebels over moves to force through tough new drink-drive laws.
Mr Dempsey faced a barrage of protest as he attempted to sell the measures at a stormy meeting of the parliamentary party, which was described as "hot and heavy" by one TD present.
Of some 25 speakers at the showdown, only two deputies backed the proposals in the Road Traffic Bill, which include reducing the drink-drive limit from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood down to 50mg of alcohol per 100ml – putting drivers over the limit after one pint of beer or a glass of wine.
The heated Fianna Fáil gathering of around 60 TDs and senators closed with Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who has thrown his weight behind Mr Dempsey, appealing for both sides to "reflect" on the arguments. But rebels warned they would vote against the measures in the Dáil unless major changes were made.
A leading critic of the reforms, Tipperary South TD Mattie McGrath, insisted the party was not behind the crackdown.
"We need a big rethink here. The minister must now reflect on what has happened. His presentation to the meeting lacked scientific evidence for his claims," the TD said.
A swathe of jittery Fianna Fáil TDs fear a cut in drink drive limits will impact badly in rural communities – and damage the party’s popularity further as it braces itself for the backlash against what is expected to be a savage December budget.
Ahead of the parliamentary meeting, a hard core of 22 TDs vowed to fight any decrease in the drink-drive levels but withdrew a motion in the hope of ministerial concessions.
The legislation was due to be published next week and then fast-tracked through the Oireachtas, but the scale of opposition may force the Cabinet to review the matter.
However, Mr Dempsey was last night believed to be determined to stand his ground.
In a sop to critics ahead of the parliamentary showdown, Mr Dempsey did move to allow first time offenders caught with 100mg who plead guilty to the offence to get a fine or penalty points rather than an automatic ban.
Road safety campaigners say that 15% of road deaths occur in accidents where a driver is impaired by alcohol. European Transport Safety Council director Antonio Avenoso said saving lives was more important than any perceived threat to rural social life.
"Switzerland reduced its level to 50mg in January 2005, and since that time he said in the period 2005-2008 that Switzerland had a 44% drop in alcohol related deaths.
"We should also not forget that rural communities have also been shattered and devastated by lives lost, by people who have brain damage and by people who have long-standing injuries because of traffic accidents due to drink driving."
At present, only Britain at 80mg, and Malta at 90mg, have the same or higher levels in the European Union than Ireland.