MATT COOPER: Sheehan affair shows some things in this great little nation don’t change

ADVANCED age or previous good character cannot be given as legitimate excuses for PJ Sheehan’s boneheaded drunken behaviour in the grounds of Dáil Eireann in early July, as revealed only last weekend.

The Fine Gael TD was wrong and his forced resignation as the party’s deputy spokesman on agriculture on Monday, a day after he had been rumbled by two newspapers and following an apology to his party leader Enda Kenny, hardly seems sufficient punishment for behaviour that was disgraceful on two scores.

One was his effort to drive while incapable of doing so because of the amount of alcohol he had consumed. The second was his threat to damage the career advancement of the young female garda who saved him from breaking the law by bringing his car onto the public highway.

It has been reported Sheehan had difficulty in standing, made physical contact with the garda and also told her she would be in trouble. The reality is he would have been in far bigger trouble had he managed to navigate the vehicle out of the car park, assuming he hadn’t hit a person or car in his efforts to do so.

It is a strange oddity that he could have been arrested and charged if he had been parked outside of Dáil Eireann, and then sat in the driver’s seat and tried to start the ignition. That he was on so-called private property in the Oireachtas car park seems to have saved him although there is also a legal argument that a TD or senator cannot be arrested going to or from the Dáil because of constitutional protections established for other, better reasons.

Sheehan comes from an era where getting behind the wheel of a car while drunk was acceptable – and the numbers of people who died on the road was a multiple of what it is now.

For all of the criticism aimed at young people for speeding excessively very, very few of them would ever dream of driving after having more than just one drink. But imagine the reaction if a young person had done what Sheehan attempted? Arguments that it was out of character would have received short shrift. He can hardly be excused either on the basis of age – he is 77 – because that would be discriminatory, albeit to his advantage.

Equally worrying was Sheehan’s alleged threat that he would damage the career prospects of the garda who was only trying to help him. It was almost certainly a hollow threat that he would not even have remembered the following day, let alone have tried to implement, but it illustrates a mindset from the past when TDs did have disproportionate and inappropriate influence over the gardaí. Who remembers the old joke about a garda raiding an after-hours drinking session in a pub to be greeted by the local TD with the question: “Is it a drink or a transfer you’ll be having, officer?” Sheehan may come from a different generation but he is an elected TD who claims full wages and expenses and he cannot be held to different standards than anyone else. If memory serves me correctly, Sheehan’s Fine Gael colleague John Deasy seemed to attract every bit as much flak, and possibly even more, when he dared to flout the smoking ban by doing so in the Dáil bar. Was that anywhere near as important a flouting of the law?

Enda Kenny has not covered himself in glory either in his handling of this issue, unconvincing in his denial of undue delay in dealing with it. He says he only became aware of the “full facts” of the incident on Sunday, when they were published in two newspapers.

However, he was not only present when the incident occurred – whch pretty much gave him all the facts he needed – but reportedly intervened to tell the garda involved to ignore what Sheehan had said. What Kenny left unsaid on Tuesday was this: he deliberately chose not to find out any more about the incident in the hope that it went unreported and therefore would not have to be dealt with.

At one level this seems like a sensible approach, both practically and politically. It would have helped to defuse an escalating incident and it saved Fine Gael from the embarrassment of a more heated public encounter that would reach the media in double quick time.

But at another level it was not the right thing to do at all. Imagine the position of this garda as the incident now involves Kenny. She is reassured Sheehan’s threat is not going to be implemented because she has the word of the leader of the opposition, and a likely future Taoiseach, that it won’t, but did that not put her under further pressure not to do anything more about Sheehan’s behaviour?

Sheehan has now offered to write to the garda involved to express his “deep personal apologies and regrets”, but it is clear he is doing this only now because he has been caught. That dramatically reduces the value of the apology.

Sheehan is not helped either by the knowledge that he previously objected to the reduction in the drink driving limit when introduced by Noel Dempsey earlier this year. He asked Dempsey to “show a bit of leniency for the people living in Ballydehob... we have no LUAS service in west Cork. Neither have we a CIE service every 10 minutes or a taxi service”. Which is all true, but why didn’t Sheehan seek to available of the plentiful taxis in Dublin. It is not difficult to anticipate the argument: “leave him alone – haven’t we all done it something?” Well, we all haven’t. The vast majority of people would have no truck whatsoever with doing either of the things Sheehan did. If this had happened in Britain I suspect Sheehan would have been required to resign his seat. At the very least he would have been de-selected as a candidate for the next general election. At his age it would seem an obvious, easy and logical thing to do. But in the world of Irish politics it is far from straightforward.

FINE Gael hasn’t even gone as far as considering the removal of the party whip from him. He may not have had the opportunity to do a Jim McDaid – driving drunkenly the wrong way down a motorway – but he was lucky that he didn’t (That Fianna Fáil failed years ago to discipline PV Wright for a similar drunken driving offence, one that involved an accident, partly explains why it has been so quiet about castigating Sheehan even if it is suspected in having a hand in leaking the story).

Fine Gael holds two seats in the Cork South-West constituency. Sheehan lost his in 2002 after 21 years unbroken service before regaining it in 2007. He has not declared his intentions for the next election although it must have been improbable, even before now, that he would stand again.

However, his son, a local councillor, is regarded as his likely successor in that traditional fashion of passing on seats between generations in this country. To sack as a candidate or to remove the party whip from him would be to risk Fine Gael’s second seat in this three-seat constituency should Sheehan react negatively to such humiliation. It is not impossible that Labour could win the third seat, giving a three-way split, or that a Sheehan could win independent of Fine Gael: the Irish way would be to react sympathetically to Sheehan should he pay a price for his wrongdoing.

Great country, isn’t it?

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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