Although the whole thing has been depicted as another serious blow to politics and law enforcement, what happened is really a healthy development because it shows there has been a change in the culture of tolerance towards alcohol abuse.
Drink has always been an Irish problem. Plastered Paddies are infamous the world over. In the early days of independence, leaders were expected to be abstemious. Of course, some of them were not. Michael Collins, the great icon of Fine Gael, was essentially on a pub crawl of west Cork on the day he was shot.
“We were pissed,” according to Major General Emmet Dalton, who was in charge of the convoy in which Collins was travelling. Of course, Michael McDowell did not tell us that about the Big Fellow this week. Eoin O’Duffy, the first leader of Fine Gael, had a serious drink problem, but a couple of his successors were very abstemious.
The late Paddy Lindsay, who served in the second coalition government, recalled going to Áras an Uactaráin to hand in their seals of office in 1957.
As they passed the Irish House, a pub not far from the Four Courts, James Dillon remarked, “I never fail to be intrigued by that old Irish House.”
“If you saw it four times a day coming from the Four Courts,” outgoing Taoiseach John A Costello remarked, “you wouldn’t be a bit impressed.”
“You know,” Dillon rejoined, “I was never in a public house in my life except my own in Ballaghadrerreen, which I sold because when I saw young people going home having spent so much money on drink, I decided that they were depriving their families of the essentials.”
Thereupon Costello admitted he had only been in a public house once in his life. That was in Terenure where he said he nearly chocked on a bottle of orange.
Hearing all this, Lindsay “was totally appalled.” He erupted with an expletive. “I now know,” he said, “why we are going in this direction today and why we are out of touch with the people.”
Some of the new breed of politicians – people like Jack Lynch, Charles Haughey, Donogh O’Malley, Michael Moran and Brian Lenihan – were vulnerable in their attitude towards drink. Stories about Donogh O’Malley’s behaviour were legendary. In his biography, Unfulfilled Promise, PJ Browne tells of O’Malley being carpeted by the Chief. When colleagues asked after one such meeting what Éamon de Valera had said to him, O’Malley startled them with his answer: “The Chief told me he never slept with Mary MacSwiney.”
“They tell me you are drinking again, Donogh,” de Valera had said at the start of their meeting, according to O’Malley. “I wouldn’t mind them, Taoiseach,” O’Malley supposedly replied. “They told me you used to sleep with Mary MacSwiney and I never believed them.”
Dev was so shocked that he forgot the purpose of the meeting, according to O’Malley. No one would have believed his account, but it was a colourful story.
One night O’Malley was stopped while driving the wrong way on a one-way street. The garda asked if he had not seen the arrows. “I didn’t even see the effin Indians,” O’Malley replied. He was prosecuted for drunken driving.
Charlie Haughey, then Minister for Justice, arranged for the court to rise before the case was heard. When the press left, the judge returned to the court. O’Malley pleaded guilty and was fined £25 and put off the road for six month, but there was no publicity.
That might have been the end of the story had the arresting garda not been ousted from the force shortly afterwards. Questions were asked in the Dáil. Gerard Sweetman, the deputy leader of Fine Gael, referred to “an amazing coincidence” concerning another garda who had also been forced to resign recently.
“There are some ‘quare’ files in my office too,” Haughey replied ominously. “Let us not be pushed too far,” James Dillon, the Fine Gael leader, cautioned, but he and his colleagues did not pursue the cases of either of the dismissed gardaí any further.
British journalist Jeffrey Bernard used to tell of drinking in the Horseshoe Bar of the Shelbourne Hotel on the night of an Irish Derby at the Curragh.
It was well after hours and he found the conversation about horses stimulating. “And what do you do?” he asked the man next to him. “I’m the Minister for Finance,” Charlie Haughey replied.
As Finance Minister Haughey demanded his garda driver allow him to drive the state car home after a Fianna Fáil convention in Enniscorthy in September 1968. Haughey, who was apparently in no fit state to drive, crashed the car into a bridge near Arklow at 4.30am. Thereafter ministerial drivers were ordered not to allow their respective ministers to drive state cars.
Haughey was Taoiseach in November 1989 when Senator Seán McCarthy of Fianna Fáil was arrested in Dublin on suspicion of drunken driving at 5am. He was taken to Rathmines Garda station where he refused to give a blood or urine sample. He claimed immunity on the grounds of a constitutional provision providing him with free passage to and from the Oireachtas.
When the case came to court on March 29, 1990, the Director of Public Prosecutions requested that the matter be dropped. This was front-page news next day when Gay Byrne happened to hold a Late Late Show tribute to Brian Lenihan.
During the programme one of the guests told of the night gardaí raided an O’Connell Street pub and Donogh O’Malley asked the garda in charge if he would “have a pint or a transfer”.
THIS was the zenith of the alcohol tolerance, but it was one joke too many. Some of the Labour party were so incensed with the attitude adopted by the Fianna Fáil gathering on that Late Late Show that they decided to run Mary Robinson for president later that year. Haughey suffered enormous political damage in the ensuing presidential campaign during which he had to oust Lenihan as Tánaiste.
In 2003 Deputy Thomas (GV) Wright was convicted of drink driving, fined €900, and put off the road for two years after he knocked down and seriously injured a woman.
A couple of years later James McDaid was convicted of drunken driving after being stopped going the wrong way on the Naas dual carriageway.
By comparison, PJ Sheehan’s offence was comparatively minor thanks to the initiative taken by the garda. She offered to arrange a taxi for him and got the usher to refuse to raise the barrier to allow the deputy to drive out of the grounds of Leinster House. It was one o’clock in the morning and Sheehan did not realise he had no lights on.
He should have had the decency to apologise next day and, indeed, thank the garda for her help. His apology more than two months later, after the story broke, was not really an expression of contrition for his loutish behaviour but for the embarrassment of being exposed.