Ireland’s war on booze

Though typically a nation of poetry, literature, sportsmen and graft, Ireland’s reputation for drinking is as old as Ireland itself. The comic drunkard is a well-known figure in Irish humour, from the wise-cracking Dave Allen to the lecherous Father Jack Hackett.

But this might be about to change. The Irish government is currently debating its new Public Health Alcohol Bill, which is set to force through a raft of changes that would make Ireland’s alcohol laws among the most severe in Europe.

If approved, the bill will introduce minimum-pricing controls on alcohol and restrictions on advertising. It would also force all shops that aren’t off-licenses to cover and separate off all alcoholic products on the shelves. And, if that weren’t enough, it would also ban ‘free alcohol’, meaning an end to shops and businesses giving out complimentary drinks – a common practice in Irish barbershops.

As is always the case with such laws, the bill was drawn up under the guise of public health – the great moral crusade to make us live longer in agonising, sober misery. But these illiberal laws always have less to do with health than with restricting freedom. This bill is an encroachment on the civil liberties of the Irish public, as it seeks to reduce the choices on offer to consumers, acting on the assumption that people are incapable of making sensible decisions on their own.

The bill isn’t just bad for punters, either. Going after alcohol in this way will prove damaging to manufacturers, putting jobs at risk in several industries from bottling to marketing. It’s both illiberal and punitive. It should be up to consumers to decide what products they want to buy.

But, above all else, it’s unnecessary – drinking levels have been declining in Ireland for decades. And there is zero evidence that illiberal policies like this have had any effect. These new regulations are aimed at reducing general consumption of alcohol to a blanket 9.1 litres per person, per year, by 2020. But this is an entirely arbitrary figure.

Public-health lobbyists claim to want to reduce liver disease and alcoholism, which is all well and good. But restricting people’s freedom and choice is never the way to go about it. This proposed bill is petty, spiteful and plays into a tired old stereotype. While they still can, the Irish public should resist it.

Benedict Spence is a writer based in London.

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