Minister Harris to force limit on sale of alcohol

Health Minister Simon Harris will attempt to force through repeatedly blocked plans to restrict the sale and promotion of alcohol before Halloween — despite ongoing vocal opposition from within his own party, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Correspondent.

Mr Harris issued the deadline as he criticised Government colleagues and rival parties for consistently stalling the plans, saying they are putting Trojan horse excuses made by vested interests before the country’s alcohol addiction crisis.

Speaking at the launch of the Dublin-based Rutland Centre’s second annual recovery month addiction awareness campaign, Mr Harris said 91% of people helped by the group last year were suffering from severe alcohol problems.

Describing the situation as the elephant in the room for addiction services, Mr Harris said the Public Health Alcohol Bill must no longer be blocked due to Trojan horse concerns over the financial damage its sale and advertising restrictions could have on small shops.

While saying he will address legitimate business concerns in an amendment this autumn, Mr Harris said the delays cannot continue.

Urging cross-party action on the issue now, he said he will attempt to force through the changes before Halloween, saying that those who fail to back the plans should “stop coming to events like recovery month if they’re not actually serious about tackling one of the most serious issues in this country”.

“Really, when it comes to addiction, alcohol is still the elephant in the room,” he said. “That’s why I’m absolutely determined, as is the Government, to bring forward the Public Health Alcohol Bill, reintroduce it in the autumn and have it pass all stages of the Houses of the Oireachtas in this session.

“People have expressed concerns about the burden placed on small businesses [by the bill], but that was never its point. I want to reflect that in amendments I plan to bring forward.

“The substance of this bill is so important, and it is about time we all step up to the plate and show political leadership.

“If we’re serious about showing political leadership on alcohol rather than political platitudes, we need to get on and introduce this legislation because it has been stalled for quite some time.

“Every political party stands up in the Dáil and tells yourself and colleagues in the media they support action on alcohol. Well, now it’s time for them to show that. You can make every Trojan horse argument you wish to dilute this legislation, but at the end of the day if we are serious about showing political leadership on alcohol, rather than political platitudes, we need to get on with delivering this legislation.”

The public health alcohol bill, publicly backed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and previously championed by former junior health minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, seeks to severely restrict the sale and advertising of alcohol across the country.

The bill will introduce minimum alcohol pricing and make it illegal for shops to sell and promote alcohol within view of the general public — a change similar to existing cigarette sale laws that has become known as the ‘booze curtain’ rule and has been heavily criticised by opponents due to the alleged financial damage it could cause small shops.

The small shops argument has previously been raised by rural Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs, individual members of the Independent Alliance, business groups, and the Vintners Association of Ireland, with Fine Gael senators blocking the bill from passing last October and earlier this year for this reason.

The opposition of up to 20 Fine Gael senators last year caused significant problems for then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, with an expectation the bill would be diluted to calm concerns over its impact on small businesses.

However, while saying he will address this issue in an amendment before the autumn, Mr Harris yesterday said the bill will not be watered down.

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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