Paul Hosford: Cowen presents early headache for Martin

What began as a story of an historical three-month driving ban, has become a member of the government accusing An Garda Síochána of criminality.
Paul Hosford: Cowen presents early headache for Martin
Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen TDduring a Government Cabinet meeting at Dublin Castle.Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

When news first emerged that Agriculture Culture Minister Barry Cowen had been banned from driving for being over the legal alcohol limit in 2016, it was a story of personal embarrassment for the veteran TD, painful memories for families who lost loved ones to drink-driving and a political headache for the Taoiseach.

Mr Cowen's Dáil address last Tuesday seemed to draw a line under the issue, until Sunday's events, which led to a government minister accusing An Garda Síochána of a criminal act.

If it wasn't serious enough last week, it's now developed into a saga which threatens the credibility and possible future of a minister just two weeks into the job. 

When Barry Cowen was stopped at a checkpoint in Kilshanroe, near Carbury in Co Kildare in September 2016, he was over the legal alcohol limit for driving a car. Of that, there is no dispute.

Mr Cowen says his reading was "marginal" but accepted his three-month driving ban. At the time, and for his entire time driving previously, Mr Cowen was in possession of a learner permit and not a full driver's licence.

Though he was accompanied by a fully-licensed driver on the night he was banned, Mr Cowen has admitted to driving unaccompanied during the period he held the permit.

What is in dispute is the nature of Mr Cowen being stopped at the checkpoint.

The Sunday Times reported that the garda record of the stop says that Mr Cowen attempted a u-turn and tried to drive away from the garda checkpoint. If true, it would mean that Mr Cowen was guilty of a much more serious offence than a marginally failed breathalyser.

However, Mr Cowen says the record leaked to the newspaper is "incorrect".

"I did not evade, or attempt to evade, a Garda. Such an act would constitute a serious criminal offence and I was not charged with such an offence. On being informed of its existence I sought a copy of this incorrect record and am taking steps under the Data Protection Act to have it corrected."

jobs. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie
jobs. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

While Mr Cowen suggested that An Garda Síochána had begun a criminal investigation into the matter, a spokesperson said that the force had begun a "preliminary examination to ascertain whether an investigation should be held into whether a third party had access to information related to an individual."

The outcome of any such an investigation could have major ramifications for this newly-installed government as the results become focused to the point of being binary. Either Mr Cowen tried, as the Garda report is claimed to have said, to evade a checkpoint or the gardaí got it wrong either accidentally or otherwise.

If Mr Cowen tried to evade a checkpoint, the question becomes why? He says he was accompanied by a fully-licensed driver and that the result was him being marginally over the limit, meaning he had no reason at the time to try to avoid contact with gardaí.

If the Pulse record of events is as was reported by the Sunday Times, and Mr Cowen has insisted it isn't, then not only is his personal reputation on the line but possibly his political career as well.

Mr Martin and Mr Cowen have travelled a long road to office together, to the point where Mr Martin said that he had not asked Mr Cowen if he had any issues which might cause embarrassment in his closet when he appointed him to Cabinet. Mr Martin said that he had "assumed" Mr Cowen's slate was clean.

For a Taoiseach barely in the job, facing a pandemic, a recession and a wide coalition government, parts of which are now calling for clarity on Mr Cowen's actions, the timing could hardly be worse.

However, on the other side, the consequences if Mr Cowen is right could go even further.

If the Laois-Offaly TD is correct, then the Garda account of his ban is wrong and the questions could lead as far as a tribunal, some suggest. 

The offence the report suggests, that Mr Cowen performed a u-turn with the aim of avoiding a Garda checkpoint is both serious and not open to much interpretation - either he did or he didn't.

If the account is wrong - why? Was it a genuine error during the inputting of the information into the Pulse system? Or, as Mr Cowen has suggested, was it intentional?

If the record suggests Mr Cowen was suspected of a more serious offence, why wasn't he arrested and charged as such?

Then there is the issue of the leak. Any journalist can tell you that An Garda Síochána is not a watertight organisation and is largely the better for it at times. But Mr Cowen, as do the public, has a right to believe that the private information the force holds on them will remain private.

Garda access of the Pulse system has a long and tangled history. In 2014, an audit of the system said that gardaí had been guilty of "idle curiosity" and "general snooping" when accessing the records of a model, a GAA player and three media figures incorrectly. 

Former justice minister Alan Shatter said the system was used as "some sort of social website that they could look up for gossip purposes".

In 2017, a garda was convicted of passing on details from the system to a third party and another had used the system to look up details of a new girlfriend. 

But there has been a tightening up in recent years.

Commissioner Drew Harris has referred the matter to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman's Commission (GSOC) to investigate whether anything illegal occurred when the file was passed on to the Sunday Times.

Mr Cowen already believes that there has been, saying that "[t]his incorrect Garda record can only have come into the possession of the newspaper through a criminal act". 

It is this assertion that Mr Cowen has staked both his personal reputation and political career on - if the Garda report was accurate, Mr Martin would have no option but to sack the minister.

What began as a story of an historical three-month driving ban, has become a member of the government accusing An Garda Síochána of criminality. That is, in and of itself, quite extraordinary.

But whoever is right, it will cause major headaches for the Government.

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