Many of the Senators belong to political parties as well, but there is also a significant contingent of independents and the general tone of debates is more collegiate and often even friendly. And though the Senate is rather active in the production and discussion of legislation, its members seldom make the national headlines.
It came therefore as a surprise when Senator Donie Cassidy (right), the Leader of Seanad Éireann, shook the nation yesterday with a truly revolutionary proposal. The veteran Fianna Fail politician, who lost his Dáil seat in last year's general election and received his current position as a consolation price from Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, obviously decided that he wants to be an active Leader of the Senate instead of being just parked in the upper house until the next election.
Donie Cassidy announced - all by himself - that Ireland's motorists should give up driving on the left side of the road and join the vast majority of the world's countries whose cars drive on the right side. The main reason for the Senator's suggestion is "to reduce accidents by foreigners accustomed to right-side motoring". Never mind the many Irish drivers who never passed a test and make the island's roads a constant hazard course, and never mind also that a change to right-hand driving would reduce the costs of motor vehicles as well as their insurance. It is once again the foreigners who are to blame for a proposed change to one of our so cherished and equally ridiculous traditions left behind by the former colonial power.
But not enough with a fundamental change of driving habits in this rather conservative country. No, there is more, as the Fianna Fail Senator really has it in for the (bloody) foreigners - most of them from right-driving central and eastern Europe - who meanwhile make up about 15% of our population, due to Ireland's massive economic growth over the past decade.
To punish them for coming here and doing all the jobs the newly rich Irish people are no longer willing to take, Senator Cassidy proposes that people from countries driving on the right should observe a general 80 km per hour speed limit on all Irish roads, compared with speeds up to 120 kilometres permitted for Irish drivers.
This idea is truly xenophobic, discriminating, ridiculous, impractical and probably even illegal and unconstitutional. Even if passed into law, it would never work, as it is totally unenforcable. Most foreigners driving in Ireland have an Irish-registered car. So how shall a Garda patrol know who is driving and if the person behind the wheel learned his or her skills in a country with a right-sided traffic system? The only way would be the display of another symbol on the car: a bright red F (for foreigner) perhaps, or maybe even the letters RM (for right-side motoring). Such a compulsory display would be unique, as no other country has ever sunk to such a low level of culture and common sense. In history such a marking policy would stand right beside the yellow star which Jews in Nazi Germany were forced to wear on their clothes at all times.
Besides our newly acquired European workforce, Cassidy's Law would also hit foreign tourists. Surprisingly, despite our ridiculously high prices and notoriously sloppy service, Ireland is still a popular tourist destination for visitors from Europe and the United States. They, too, should be limited to 80 km per hour when driving on our roads, if Senator Cassidy gets away with his idea.
"We have all of these people coming in from Europe and from America and because of the roads that they are used to driving on in their own countries it is a huge difficulty when they start driving here," Cassidy told our national broadcaster RTE. "I know when I go to America it takes me five or six days to adjust."Well, I should admit that I am a little bit allergic against individuals who refer to other human beings as "these people". And I could not possibly comment on Senator Donie Cassidy's personal driving skills.
But from my own experience there are no problems for a well-trained and able driver in switching from one system of traffic flow to another. Over the span of my life I have driven all sorts of cars in many different countries: right- driven cars in right-sided and left-sided systems, as well as left-driven cars in left-sided and right-sided systems.
I have crossed deserts and mountain ranges, drove through jungles and across plains, and negotiated successfully the traffic on hundreds of motorways and in many big cities, without a single accident ever.
It is not foreigners who cause Ireland's traffic problems. It is actually a combination of too few roads in often bad conditions, too many untrained drivers and a still unsolved attitude problem with driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Another factor is the high proportion of goods transport on our roads, due to a severe lack of railway lines in most parts of the island. No speed limit for non-nationals will ever solve that!
Most traffic accidents are caused by our own people, and it would only be fair if the Leader of Seanad Éireann could acknowledge that. Most foreigners are better drivers than most of the Irish, as in almost all other countries they have much better roads, proper driving tests, and no one is allowed to drive until the test is passed. And regarding the tourists, well, only a small amount of them bring their own car to Ireland. They are mostly EU citizens from countries with vastly superior traffic conditions and have usually more experience. Otherwise it would not be the case that many Irish buses are now driven by Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and other continental Europeans! And 99% of the Americans on holiday in Ireland travel in organised groups, using tour buses. So none of the Senator's arguments wash and he should better forget very quickly his ridiculous proposal, else he might not only be the Leader of the Senate, but also the country's most prominent laughing stock.
However, as daft and impractical as his speed limit for foreigners is, the suggestion to change the driving system in Ireland from left to right makes a lot of sense. With the exception of the UK, several former British colonies, Japan and Thailand most of the world's countries have a right- sided traffic system. Thus cars and insurance are cheaper, and the flow of traffic across national borders is generally unproblematic. Sweden, the last continental European country to switch from left to right (in 1967) experienced no major problems with the change and has since greatly benefited from it.
So as much as I am shocked and appalled by Senator Cassidy's speed limit idea, I wholeheartedly salute him for the suggestion to change the traffic system. If he sticks to that one, and presents it to the country in an unbiased and non-political way, it could (and should) succeed eventually.
The Emerald Islander
(driving on all sides as a true independent)