Mitchelstown taxi driver Jerry Murphy says he was called by someone with a broken down car on the M8 motorway north of Mitchelstown on the night of September 13 — the same night the junior minister was brought to Dublin Airport by two on-duty Fermoy gardaí.
However the version of events presented by both men differs greatly, with the minister denying claims he baulked at the €350 fare he was quoted on the night.
What is known is that after 3am on the night in question, the car carrying the minister, his wife, and his driver, broke down between Junction 12 and 13 on the M8 Cork-Dublin Motorway.
It is also established that the stranded party called for a taxi — at about 3.15am says Jerry Murphy.
Both men say there was a discussion about whether someone in the stranded party could drive Jerry Murphy’s car in the event that he was too tired to take the wheel the whole way to Dublin.
Jerry Murphy rang colleagues to see if they were available.
It is from this point that the accounts differ: Dara Murphy says by the time the taxi driver called him back they “were already well gone” with the gardaí on the way to Dublin — but the taxi driver times his return call at 3.21am, just minutes after their initial contact.
Jerry Murphy also claims that during this second call, they continued to discuss the possibility of someone else driving. He said in his opinion those he spoke to on the phone did not sound like they were travelling at the time of the second call. He claims the conversation ended when the €300 to €350 fare was mentioned.
“If he was already on the road with the gardaí, why was he asking me what the price of the taxi was so?” he asked yesterday.
Dara Murphy told Red FM he would think it was an inappropriate use of Garda resources if he was not on “government duty” — he had EU meetings on Monday morning. He said he was also due to meet with the Irish ambassador to Belgium and EU officials on Sunday.
However his flight was due to arrive in Brussels on Sunday morning — a full 24 hours before his Monday morning EU meetings were scheduled.
“I did see if I could re-book a later flight at lunchtime, and there didn’t seem to be flights available on the search engine we were using,” he told PJ Coogan on Cork’s 96FM.
There were four other flights out of Dublin to Brussels that day — all of which landed in the Belgian capital in time for the EU meetings.
Aer Lingus currently operates two flights to Brussels out of Dublin on Sundays at 6.40am and 6pm, but said it was not in a position to confirm if there were seats available on its flights on Sunday, September 13.
Ryanair said it had three flights from Dublin to Brussels on September 13. Two went to Zaventem, one to Charleroi, and all were fully booked.
The questions facing Dara Murphy are as follows: Why does his account of his phone call with Jerry Murphy differ from the taxi driver’s recollection?
If it was the case he was already on the road at this point with the gardaí, could they have pulled in, waited the short time it would have taken for Jerry Murphy to reach them, and allow the gardaí to return to their duties?
Were there no spare seats on the other Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Brussels which would have had him in Brussels on time for his meetings on Monday?
Could the Sunday meetings with the Irish ambassador and officials have been rescheduled, or held via conference call or Skype to allow for the exceptional circumstances?
The most significant question of all, that the public and opposition parties alike are asking is this: was it proper or necessary that two gardaí were taken away from their rural beat in these circumstances?
A spokesman for Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald did not respond to questions over whether she felt her party colleague’s use of a Garda vehicle to travel across the country to catch a flight was an appropriate use of resources given current concerns over rural crime.
While Fianna Fáil declined to comment, Sinn Féin last night said the situation was a genuine “abuse of power” and shows the “arrogance” of a number of current Government ministers.
“The minister’s use of the gardaí as a personal taxi service is a very serious abuse of his position. If anyone else had been in a similar position, would your first thought not be to ring a family member, a friend, or even a party colleague?
“The minister placed the two individual members of the force into an impossible situation. They presumably felt they could not refuse such a request,” said Dara Murphy’s Cork North Central constituency rival Jonathan O’Brien TD.
After hearing about the Garda trip, Socialist/Anti Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy — who was arrested earlier this year in relation to the controversial Jobstown water charges protest — tweeted: “I got a lift to a Garda station.”
The Garda Representative Association said it could not comment on the incident as it was an operational matter.
The Fine Gael TD recently said he did nothing wrong in appointing Joe O’Callaghan, a failed party election candidate as his ministerial driver, and also defended using the State jet along with other officials to return from Latvia to vote in the marriage equality referendum.
With a general election due by spring, Dara Murphy will contest Fine Gael’s selection convention for Cork North Central on Monday.
TDs’ planes, gravy trains and automobiles
An ex-minister using a Government plane to fly home and open a friend’s off-licence; a former attorney general’s dog “hitching a lift” in a State car from Dublin to Kerry and an ex-minister using Limos to take him from one airport terminal to another just yards away may not be the first images that spring to mind when it comes to the corridors of political power.
But despite the PR spin that politicians are there to serve the public and are immune to the transport perks and trappings their positions can bring, the situations — the latest of which is the current furore involving Fine Gael European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy — are more common than you might think.
In January 2002, the European Commission launched an inquiry after it emerged then tánaiste Mary Harney had flown home to Ireland on the Government jet to open a friend’s off-licence.
The examination was called for after the leader of the Progressive Democrats and her husband Brian Geoghegan flew from Brussels to Sligo in December 2001 on an air corps fisheries aircraft paid for by the taxpayer
After landing in Sligo Ms Harney and her husband were driven by a chauffeured State Mercedes to open the Next Door store owned by friend Fergus O’Hagan in Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim.
While Ms Harney said the event was an “important” ministerial function, then opposition parties Labour and Fine Gael said it was an abuse of power.
Seven years later, in August 2009, then attorney general Paul Gallagher was found to have asked for a State car to travel from Dublin to Kerry to pick up his dog.
Government officials insisted the main reason for the journey was to deliver urgent paperwork to Mr Gallagher while he was at his Kerry holiday home and that the pet’s participation was “incidental” as it was simply “hitching a lift”.
The officials were at pains to point out that it was “most definitely not a case of abusing the State car”.
However, following hot on the heels of former ceann comhairle and Fianna Fáil TD John O’Donoghue’s escapades while he was tourism minister during the boom, the incident added fuel to public fury over how taxpayer-funded services are used.
While the former Kerry South TD’s expenses and transport scandals are too long to list in full here — an indication itself of why he was dumped unceremoniously out of politics by a shocked electorate — a number of cases warrant mention.
Over four trips to Britain between 2006 and 2007, Mr O’Donoghue racked up €21,000 in car hire expenses; sought a €472 limo to carry him between terminals at Heathrow airport in London; and spent a further €4,956 hiring a limo during a multi-city US trip.
He separately sought the return of a £1 (€1.35) UNICEF donation included in a Scottish hotel bill in January 2009.
Unlike many of the cases outlined above and others during the boom, Dara Murphy’s situation is different as he was on government duty at the time and was faced with an unintended emergency.
The Minister of State for European Affairs has stressed his Garda journey was the only option available to him if he was going to meet his commitments so he was left with no alternative.
But many frustrated taxpayers who believe gardaí should not be asked to ferry stricken ministers cross-country, when rural Ireland’s security is already stretched to breaking point, will no doubt feel that switching flights; or getting a Garda lift to the nearest town; or paying a taxi; or rescheduling a meeting to a skype call; or even — dare we say it — getting the bus could have sufficed.
It is a lesson other politicians have learned the hard way— only some of whom have survived to tell the tale.