Battle of the bottle

Ireland's PC politicians and pious pundits have declared war on booze.

Damian Byrne

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Whenever Ireland’s politically correct clergy of preachy politicians, pious pundits and voluntary sector busybodies get into full stride, it’s enough to make you yearn for the days when the bishops set the country’s moral agenda.

In contrast to the old-style fire and brimstone, today’s efforts to curb personal freedoms and erode civil liberties are justified in the terms of the new state-sponsored religion of health and safety. So in early 2003, the Irish government announced plans for a New York-style ban on smoking in all pubs and restaurants, to come into effect from January 2004, as part of the health department’s campaign to turn Ireland into a ‘tobacco-free society’.

The government’s primary preoccupation, however, is with the nation’s drinking habits. The conventional wisdom is that Ireland is drowning in a sea of booze, and teetering on the brink of social breakdown. According to Dr Sean Brady, Archbishop of Armagh, ‘We may be witnessing another lost generation – a generation of young people who, instead of emigrating abroad, are leaving the shores of moderation, responsibility and spirituality’ (1). Jim Higgins of the opposition Fine Gael Party reckons that Ireland is ‘facing an alcohol problem of epidemic proportions, which in the next five or 10 years will leave us on a par with the AIDS epidemic in Africa’ (2).

Concern about Irish society’s alcohol consumption became a full-scale moral panic in 2001, with the publication of a comparative study of the drinking habits of 15- and 16-year-olds in 21 different European countries. The European School Survey Project contained what the minister for health Michael Martin called ‘shocking and intolerable findings’ – including the fact that those who had used any alcoholic beverages 20 times or more in the past 12 months had increased from 32 to 39 percent, placing Ireland second highest of the countries studied.

Maybe I hung around with the wrong sorts when I was growing up in my drab provincial Irish town in the 1980s, but the fact that less than half of Irish teenagers might have a regular tipple never struck me as particularly shocking. The report also found that those who had been drunk 20 times or more in their lifetime had increased from 19 to 25 percent. But for all the hysteria this generated in the media, Irish teenagers only came in fourth highest in that particular league table, miles behind the Danes, at 42 percent.

Despite the notorious unreliability of such surveys, the government rushed to introduce an alcohol awareness campaign entitled ‘Less is More – It’s Your Choice’, with a website aimed specifically at young people (3). I argued in an Irish newspaper at the time that the evidence from such campaigns in the USA has consistently shown that they don’t work, and that they can actually be counterproductive.

The campaign website contained such patronising gems as ‘A good social life can be enjoyed without alcohol’, and quickly became such a source of ridicule that it was abandoned within months. However, every second-level school in the state was subsequently asked to draw up a detailed policy to prevent the abuse of alcohol, drugs and tobacco by students, and to squander valuable teaching time by boring pupils rigid with ‘awareness’ programmes.

Notwithstanding the failure of the initial phase of its alcohol awareness campaign, the government has extended it to target the 18- to 29-year-old ‘binge drinker’. A TV and radio advertising campaign to highlight the dangers of excessive drinking is being accompanied by awareness initiatives in colleges, communities and workplaces. The phrase ‘binge drinking’ has been trotted out so frequently that it has basically come to mean anybody getting drunk at all.

Parents are also being targeted – because the real problem, apparently, is the appalling example they are setting their kids with their casual attitude towards drink. According to junior health minister Brian Lenihan, ‘For many of us, looking at our own lives and homes is a good place to start…A careless attitude towards the household drinks cabinet can demonstrate a casual ambivalence towards alcohol and be a ready source for a vulnerable child.’ (4) It’s just as well my dear old granddad is no longer around, for whom no family gathering was complete without sneaking the grandchildren the odd glass of stout. It never did us any harm, but he would probably be deemed a child abuser nowadays.

Ireland’s anti-alcohol hysteria gained further momentum in 2002, when the government’s Strategic Task Force on Alcohol revealed that Ireland had the highest increase in alcohol consumption among European Union member states between 1989 and 1999, and now ranks second in the table after Luxembourg. Ireland experienced a 41 percent increase in per capita alcohol consumption, while three other member states showed a modest increase and 10 showed a decrease. These figures are cited as evidence of Ireland’s surging levels of alcohol consumption – but they need to be put in context.

Contrary to the national stereotype, Ireland had a comparatively low level of alcohol consumption for most of the twentieth century. The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association was a major force in social life; at its peak in the 1950s it could attract crowds of up to 90,000 to its rallies in Croke Park. Between 1960 and 1975, the average amount of alcohol consumed in Ireland doubled (without any accompanying moral panic), but the country remained close to the bottom of the European league table. During that period, each Irish adult consumed on average just over one third of what was consumed in Portugal or France. The rate remained fairly steady until 1990, by which time it was close to the European norm. Then came the significant 41 percent surge up to 1999.

Many explain the rise in per capita consumption levels as a result of the decline of the Catholic Church and its temperance movements. As a result, there is no longer the same unusually high proportion of non-drinkers in the population. Research by British firm Mintel has demonstrated that the number of teetotallers has continued to decline. In 1997, a study of 5000 people found that 80 percent of adults drank alcohol. By 2002, that figure had increased to 83 percent (5).

Also, Irish demographic patterns do not necessarily lend themselves to doomsday comparisons with other countries. The vast bulk of the increase in alcohol consumption has occurred in the 18-34 age group – and the proportion of the Irish population in the 18-34 range is much higher than in other European countries. It is reasonable to assume that as the population ages, there will be a shift towards the more moderate consumption levels of an older population.

It is possible to view the rise in per capita alcohol consumption in the 1990s in a positive light, as it could be seen as a product of rising prosperity. In contrast to the staid economies of the rest of Western Europe, Ireland enjoyed a transformation in economic fortunes in that period, affecting a big change in people’s lifestyles. In the unemployment-ridden backwater that was Ireland in the 1980s, one would hardly ever see a bottle of wine other than on Christmas Day, and even then the choice was pretty much limited to Blue Nun or Le Piat D’Or. Over the past decade, levels of wine consumption have begun to rise towards those of other European countries.

Whatever the reasons behind the rise in alcohol consumption, the anti-alcohol crusade shows no sign of abating. The new minister for justice, Michael McDowell, has been quick to press home an authoritarian agenda. Ever since claiming ‘I am not a latter-day puritan or a killjoy’, McDowell has done all he can to prove otherwise. His latest set of legislative proposals will, among other things, introduce a mandatory age card for those between 18 and 25 who wish to buy alcohol; ban promotional practices such as offering cheap drink in return for a cover charge; move Thursday pub closing time back from 12.30am to 11.30pm; and impose a limit on the size of pubs.

Yet the only criticism of these measures from the opposition is that they do not go far enough. Fine Gael’s John Deasy has called for an increase in the legal age for consumption of alcohol to 21 years, and a ban on alcohol at government functions. The Labour Party and the Union of Students in Ireland have called for a reverse to the modest liberalisation of pub opening hours that came in two years ago. Yet there is no evidence that longer opening hours have influenced alcohol consumption levels. The 41 percent rise in per capita consumption was recorded before the extension of opening hours in 2000 – and since then, there was no increase in beer or spirit consumption in 2001 and a fall in 2002.

Advertising has become a favourite target of the anti-drink crusaders – again despite any evidence that restricting ads will have the slightest effect. The Gaelic Athletic Association, Ireland’s largest sporting organisation, is also coming under intense pressure to end its sponsorship deal with Guinness, which, apparently, sends out the wrong message to kids by associating alcohol with sporting idols. But as Ireland’s best sports writer Tom Humphries put it:

‘Drinking did not start in this country when Guinness began sponsoring the All Ireland hurling championships in 1995. Nobody came rushing out of their house and said that, bejaysus, the scales had just fallen from their eyes, all that stood between them and an All-Ireland medal was a good feed of stout. And drinking won’t end when we have the Eat Your Greens All-Ireland Hurling Championship.’ (6)

Even more absurd is McDowell’s dream of outlawing ‘super pubs’ and turning the Irish into a nation of sophisticates content to sit over a glass of beer or a coffee in continental-style coffee bars. He believes there should be a place where you could ‘go for a cup of coffee and a croissant with someone who wants a glass of beer’. But this could be achieved by granting alcohol licences to existing cafes.

By introducing a new licence for establishments that meet his approval, however, what McDowell has in mind is another crass effort in social engineering designed to stigmatise traditional-style pub culture and replace it with café bars which ‘provide an atmosphere and ambience that encourages moderate social consumption of alcohol rather than the excessive consumption and binge drinking that have become so common in recent years’ (7). Somehow, I suspect there won’t be much demand for these bland, smoke-free, pub-lites.

Meanwhile, anyone who gets into a scrape after a few too many might want to think again before taking themselves down to their local accident and emergency ward. Members of the Western Health Board have called for a fine to be imposed on any person admitted to an A&E department as a result of over-indulgence in alcohol.

A number of hospitals have already begun screening patients for levels of alcohol consumption. Drinkers still willing to go to hospital and be treated as second-class citizens may be letting themselves in for rather more than they bargained for. Under new guidelines launched by the minister for health in February 2003, all patients arriving in hospitals with alcohol-related problems will be seen by psychiatrists and addiction counsellors before being discharged.

‘Guinness is Good for You’ is a famous old slogan in Ireland. But Guinness wouldn’t dare make such an assertion in today’s puritanical, health-obsessed Ireland, where it would most likely provoke moral outrage and an advertising ban. Welcome to the new Ireland – where the demise of the Church and its authoritarian strictures has merely paved the way for a new elite of ban-happy lifestyle police.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) The Irish Times, 9 April 2003

(2) Senate Debates, 11 December 2002

(3) The site was www.coolchoices.ie. However, it appears to have been removed quite quickly due to being rather uncool, according to this story in the Munster Express.

(4) Senate Debates, 11 December 2002

(5) The Irish Times, 27/05/2002

(6) The Irish Times, 10/03/2003

(7) The Irish Times, 03/04/2003

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