Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar has thanked garda whistleblowers Sergeant Maurice McCabe and John Wilson at a road safety conference.

Mr Varadkar said their behaviour is better described as distinguished not disgusting, referring to the previous use of the word by Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

The minister said the commissioner should withdraw the remark.

He said: "They have come in for some criticism from some quarters in recent weeks and months for releasing garda information about private individuals. 

"I understand this criticism but I do not share it and do not agree with it. 

"The garda whistleblowers only released this information after they tried and failed to have their concerns addressed through official channels and proper means. 

"They released the information in an effort to expose bad practice and protect the public and this was done through contact with members of the Oireachtas, which is expressly provided for in the Garda Act of 2005."

He added: "Speaking on my own behalf and on behalf of the thousands of families who have had to endure the pain and loss that flows from the death of a loved one on the road, I want to thank Sergeant McCabe and Mr Wilson for their service. 

"They may not have got everything right but they did shine a light into a dark place and forced those who would rather turn a blind-eye to face up to the truth."

He said: "There have been many words used to describe their actions in recent months. But if I was to use one word, the word I would use is distinguished."

A statement issued by the garda press office this evening reiterated that Commissioner Callinan had used the word “disgusting” to describe the manner in which personal and sensitive data was inappropriately appearing in the public domain.

The statement said clarity had already been given by the commissioner and the term was not used in reference to the character of Sgt McCabe or former Garda Wilson.

Asked if there should be an apology to the whistleblowers, Mr Varadkar said it should only come if it was heartfelt as there is no point in making an insincere apology.

Mr Wilson said he was "very pleased with the remarks" and he "greatly respects Minister Leo Varadkar".

Sources close to Sgt McCabe said he was also delighted with the minister's comments. 

On road safety, Mr Varadkar said he will be introducing regulations to make it clear that texting or accessing the internet on a phone while driving, even when it is in a hands-free cradle, is illegal.