Barry Cowen sacking: What really happened behind the scenes

Barry Cowen sacking: What really happened behind the scenes
Sacked Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen with Taoiseach Micheál Martin after first being appointed. Picture:RollingNews.ie

On Tuesday morning, after a lengthy discussion the night before between them, Barry Cowen presented the Garda file on his 2016 drink driving incident to his party leader, Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

On viewing the file, Mr Martin’s view was that it was not clear cut that Mr Cowen sought to evade a checkpoint, as suggested by the Sunday Times story.

It is believed that Mr Martin appealed to Mr Cowen to seek to offer another personal statement to the Dáil to clarify certain elements of the incident.

Mr Cowen is said to have refused that request but Mr Martin sought to give him time to consider the matter.

“We had extensive discussions on this point last evening and again this morning, when he shared with me for the first time the actually Garda record on the dispute,” Mr Martin said.

“Following these discussions and having seen the Garda report this morning it was my view that it raised additional issues, requiring further explanation and clarification. I made this view clear to him and give him space today to consider the matter further,” he added.

At 2pm on Tuesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin made clear in the Dáil that Barry Cowen was going nowhere.

He defended him and even voted to block opposition demands to force Cowen in to the Dáil to answer questions on the latest revelations which suggested he sought to evade a garda checkpoint on the night he was caught drink driving in 2016.

He made clear the embattled Agriculture Minister disputed the Pulse record of the incident in 2016 which states Mr Cowen attempted a U-turn and to drive away upon seeing the Garda checkpoint.

The Laois-Offaly TD was found to be over the limit while driving himself and a friend home from the All-Ireland football final on September 18. He was banned from driving for three months and received a €200 fine.

Mr Cowen is taking steps under the Data Protection Act to have the record changed.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil during Leader's Questions that Mr Cowen brought the record to him on Tuesday morning and the document is “not quite as portrayed”.

The leader of Sinn Féin critcised the "drip-feed" of information emerging and said Barry Cowen should answer questions in the Dáil. Picture: RollingNews.ie
The leader of Sinn Féin critcised the "drip-feed" of information emerging and said Barry Cowen should answer questions in the Dáil. Picture: RollingNews.ie

She added that a government minister challenging the garda record was a "very very serious matter", and that it was "extraordinary" that the Taoiseach "stood over" Mr Cowen's statement to the Dáil last week when he was aware that such a record existed, and therefore the statement was "incomplete".

"You have confirmed that you did know about Garda pulse record and the allegations about evading the checkpoint before Mr Cowen made his statement, I find that extraordinary, that you would stand over an incomplete statement to this Dáil," Ms McDonald said.

You were aware there was another twist in the tale.

"I believe a newspaper said I was told, I can't verify without seeing the document myself," Mr Martin replied.

"It's not my record to publish, don't be making suggestions that are untrue. 

"Minister Cowen was unaware of what was on the record until he got his hands on it. I wasn't going to be prejudging until I see the record for myself."

After he finished his business in the Dáil at about 5pm, Mr Martin returned to his office to once again deal with Mr Cowen, hoping that he would have softened his stance.

“However, he has decided that he's not prepared to address this allegation publicly, and would not make any further statement to answer any questions on this issue in this house. This decision has created situation where legitimate doubts and additional questions were being raised and government colleagues are expected to address these. This is simply untenable,” Mr Martin said.

Those close to events have said that Mr Cowen “would not budge an inch” from his position that he would not make any further public comment on the matter.

Those sources maintain that the Taoiseach was of the view that it was simply not possible to refuse to answer any questions in public.

It left him with little choice.

When they met again, Mr Martin said he had no option but to seek Mr Cowen’s resignation but Mr Cowen refused to accede to that request.

The meeting broke up but at about 7pm Mr Cowen received a phonecall from the Taoiseach with the news he was being sacked.

“The Taoiseach informed me this evening by phone that he was removing me from office as Minister for Agriculture. I am both surprised and disappointed with this decision,” Mr Cowen said.

At 8.54pm, two media organisations – The Irish Examiner and RTÉ – both broke the news that Mr Cowen had been sacked.

Within five minutes, a deflated looking Mr Martin was in the Dáil chamber and Ceann Comhairle Sean O’Fearghail announced the Taoiseach wished to make a statement.

Mr Martin told shocked TDs that he requested the President to remove Mr Cowen from office.

The Taoiseach said the garda report “raised additional issues, requiring further explanation and clarification.” “I made this view clear to him and give him space today to consider the matter further. However, he has decided that he's not prepared to address this allegation publicly, and would not make any further statement to answer any questions on this issue in this house,” the Taoiseach told a shocked Dáil.

“This decision has created situation where legitimate doubts and additional questions were being raised and government colleagues are expected to address these. 

"This is simply untenable. It is my view that Barry Cowen had an obligation to come before the house it's also my view that this issue is damaging to the ongoing work of government,” he said.

Mr Martin informed the Dáil that acting on his request, President Michael D Higgins “terminated the appointment of deputy Barney Cowen as a member of the government. Pursuant to Section four, one of the ministers and secretaries Amendment Act 1946”.

Mr Martin said it was “a sad day for Barry, for his family and for me.” 

The reaction around Leinster House was swift and visceral.

TDs told my colleague Paul Hosford that they were "fucking fuming" that the TDs had worked to defend Mr Cowen only for him to be sacked.

Something changed along the way, but nobody told us.

Mr Cowen for his part was defiant. He said he was both surprised and disappointed with this decision.

"Previously I furnished the Taoiseach with all the facts about my drink driving conviction and the story that the Sunday Times proposed to publish about my alleged evasion of a Garda check point. In doing so I provided him with confidential details about my interaction with An Garda Siochana," he said.

I have made my position on these matters known publicly and I have acknowledged my wrongdoing for something that occurred 4 years ago.

I have sought an explanation - not as a government minister but as a citizen - as to how details relating to the incident were leaked to the media.

The authorities have agreed to investigate the matter.

“One point warrants emphasis: at no time did I attempt to evade the Gardaí. Had I done so, the charges brought against me would, quite correctly, have been of a different tenor to those with which I was charged. I am responsible for the offence with which I was convicted 4 years ago - not for an inaccurate garda entry on Pulse about that event,” he added.

“Ten days ago and this afternoon the Taoiseach believed my failure of 2016 didn’t warrant my removal from office but he now appears to have changed his mind based on a Pulse report I gave him this morning,” he said.

“It is important to re-emphasise that report was leaked in contravention of the protections that I and every other citizen is entitled to expect in respect of their interaction with the Gardaí.

Unfortunately, the decision of the Taoiseach to remove me from office, when he supported me this afternoon in the Dáil, has undermined and potentially prejudiced my entitlement to fair process,” he said.

Mr Cowen returns to the backbenches while Mr Martin has a job of work to try and instil some calm and order on his fledgling government.

Already attention is moving on as to who will replace him. The early money is on Dara Calleary given the bruhaha around his snub two and a half weeks ago but it is not a certainty.

A sorry episode from start to finish.

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