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The quiet woman who became a fearless campaigner

County View

John Healy

FOR anyone who was ever at the receiving end of what is often seen as the skewed justice dispensed by Irish courts, Gertie Shields, who died last week, was a heroine. And arguably, there are thousands of citizens today whose lives were saved by her life long campaign to reform drink-driving laws.
Mrs Shields, the mother of nine children, was a private, reserved person when in 1983 the death of her 19 year-old daughter, Paula, in a road crash, turned her into a national figure. It was the circumstances of that tragedy, and the family’s unease at the outcome of the subsequent court hearing, that impelled that quiet woman to cry out publicly for justice.
Paula Shields and five of her friends were killed when a drunk driver ploughed into the minibus in which they were travelling on a cold February evening. The driver made off and was not apprehended by Gardai until three hours later.
The case came for hearing before Trim Circuit Court, and the man concerned was given a two year suspended sentence and a fifteen year driving ban. The shock and outrage of the Shields family, who were in court that day, was compounded when, in the previous case, a man accused of stealing a sheep had been given a six month jail sentence.
The contrast between the two cases prompted outrage in the court, so much so that Gertie Shields was invited by the judge to take her place in the witness box. There, she complained of the glaring inadequacies in the law by which the offending driver was never actually charged with drink driving, since he had left the scene of the accident. And the assurances given to her by the judge that the fifteen years ban would be strictly enforced came to nothing when she later learned that, after seven years, the license had been restored on appeal.
From that day on, Gertie Shields resolved that she would devote her life to campaigning against the scourge of drink driving, and against the prevailing climate of tolerance towards those who took to the wheel when they were clearly not in a fit state to drive a vehicle.
Her appearance on the Late Late Show , and the recounting of her story, evoked a huge response from those who had been similarly bereaved as a result of drink driving accidents. The host of the show, Gay Byrne, would later become chairman of the Road Safety Authority, and would lavish praise on Mrs Shields for her achievements in changing society’s attitude to the evils of drink driving.
With others, Gertie Shields set up the organisation called MADD (Mothers against Drink Driving), which proved to be a highly effective and influential lobby group. It had ten basic demands which it set out to accomplish, and its astute targeting of key politicians saw many of them eventually passed into law. Among them - and which was the subject of strenuous resistance from many quarters - was the progressive reduction in alcohol driving limits. It was a measure which, as Gay Byrne recalls, was met with opposition and abuse.
Thanks in large part to the dedicated campaigning of Gertie Shields and her group, annual road deaths have more than halved in recent years. By the time she died last week, most of her adult life had been devoted to the hope that others would be spared the trauma of what she and her family had suffered, out of the blue, unexpectedly and unprepared for, on that fateful February day.
She well deserved the moving tributes accorded her by her home town of Balbriggan as she was laid to rest.