Editor-in-chief Irish Independent & Independent.ie
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Amid the pandemic, a historic government coalition was formed in Ireland. Investigative journalism from the Irish Independent led to one of the ministers leaving office after just 17 days.
The year 2020 will always be known as the year of Covid-19, a once-in-a century pandemic that would reshape our lives, shatter our societies and economies and kill our loved ones. Irish Independent journalists have worked with great determination and diligence to cover the impact of the virus over so many minutes, hours, days and months that it goes without saying that it was our most important story of the year.
That, though, is a given for all journalists, all around the world.
So what can we say about what we did that was important and engaging – but also unique?
One story about another once-in-a-century event underlines the importance of political accountability, particularly in the context of a wider societal issue.
Ireland’s political landscape was altered by a general election in February 2020, which put the largest parties historically – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – into government together for the first time in the 100 years since they split in a dispute about the Anglo-Irish Treaty that brought about the Irish Free State.
The early days of the new government (which also includes the Green Party) were always going to be difficult and it was rocked by a number of political controversies.
The first of these was when the Irish Independent revealed that the new agriculture minister, Barry Cowen, had been caught drink-driving and had lost his licence for a time in the past but had never made this public.
It took painstaking investigative work by Ireland editor Fionnán Sheahan to confirm the information he had obtained and put it to the minister, giving him an opportunity to explain the circumstances.
However, Mr Cowen failed to give detailed answers to questions about the incident. Independent.ie broke the story at 20.40 on 3 July, less than a week after the new government was formed. We revealed Mr Cowen had also been on a learner permit at the time, due to another “quirk” of the Irish system.
On 4 July, we revealed that Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Mr Cowen’s party leader, hadn’t been made aware of the incident when he appointed Mr Cowen to the Cabinet. On 7 July, we revealed that Mr Cowen had also been caught speeding during his time on a learner permit.
That allowed further investigation of just how the “learner” system was working – and led to us revealing on 8 July that 37,000 drivers in Ireland were on their fourth or more learner permit and a subsequent claim from the Road Safety Authority that those drivers were “gaming” or manipulating the system.
This resulted in wider awareness of safety concerns about the use of learner permits and, of course, about driving while under the influence of alcohol.
As further details about the police report emerged, Mr Cowen claimed the official record of the incident might not be fully correct, raising the prospect of a sitting minister suggesting a police file on an incident would need to be amended.
The Taoiseach was unhappy with the answers he was getting about the incident and – when Mr Cowen would not resign – he sacked him.
He had been a minister for just 17 days.