ALISON O'CONNOR: Politicians and public bury their heads in the sand on alcohol abuse

Our streets host fabulous parades by day, but scenes of vomiting, urinating, and fighting by night, writes Alison O’Connor.

LET’S hear a toast to the Irish, the kings and queens of all that is the absolute best of craic. Shure who wouldn’t raise a glass to the auld sod, the Emerald Isle, today of all days? 

Wouldn’t it be rude not to set the celebratory pace for our annual St Patrick’s Day, celebrated as it is in all corners of the globe.

We know, as sure as eggs is eggs, that while our streets will play host to fabulous parades today, by tonight, following marathon drinking sessions, there will be vomiting, urinating, fighting, and people driving when they are over the limit. 

It will be a hectic night for An Garda and in our accident and emergency departments. 

At the risk of being a killjoy, it is not a bad time of year to look at what junior health minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy has described as our “culturally unusual relationship with alcohol”.

That peculiarly Irish relationship was perfectly encapsulated by the response of our national politicians to the efforts late last year to enact the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, and how that legislation is under threat. 

It is almost a year and a half ago since it was commenced in the Seanad. In the meantime, almost 1,500 Irish people have died directly as a result of abusing alcohol.

It is worth noting that our per capita alcohol consumption rose last year, according to provisional figures from the Revenue Commissioners. 

In 2016, anyone over the age of 15 drank the equivalent of 11.46 litres of pure alcohol, an increase of 4.8% on the previous year.

The increases were recorded on all categories of alcohol, with the highest on spirits and cider.

Measuring consumption in this way, because clearly not everyone drinks to the same level, or begins at 15, has its drawbacks. 

For instance, surveys show that over a fifth of Irish people do not drink at all, but consumption is seen as a good indicator of levels of alcohol harm in a country. 

The flipside of having that many non-drinkers must be that the remaining four fifths drink significantly more on average, and much of the damage is done by our drinking patterns and fondness for something like, for instance, a good Paddy’s Day blowout.

Awareness is improving, slightly, but it remains the case that anyone seen to be coming between the Irish and their alcohol can be viewed as a serious spoilsport. Ms Corcoran Kennedy, who was appointed junior minister with responsibility for Public Health, knows this more than most. 

In fact, she had a baptism of fire when it came to attempting to steer the bill through the Seanad. 

It was quietly withdrawn after a filibuster by senators from the minister’s own party during the committee stage debate. They were up in arms over proposals for small shops to have to conceal and separate alcohol from other products.

The roasting didn’t end there. She also felt the pressure from her own colleagues in the Fine Gael parliamentary party, and members of the Independent Alliance were equally unimpressed. 

What happened in Leinster House during that time was an absolute triumph for those lobbying on behalf of the drinks industry. 

At least now, under new rules, it is necessary to declare any lobbying, but it is clear from the returns that we are not seeing the full picture. 

The filings from some quarters that you would expect to be very active are rather sparse, and others are nowhere in evidence. 

There are some shop owners listed, although not as many as you might imagine. The returns are a who’s who of our PR/lobbyists. 

Our top persuaders, highly paid, were attempting to sway everyone from ministers, TDs, and senators to special advisers to ministers and the secretary general to the Department of the Taoiseach.

In essence, we had those professional lobbyists, so many of them formerly involved in politics, and therefore knowing how to run rings around the system, backed by the deep pockets of the drinks industry, up against our public health professionals — in other words the doctors who witness on a daily basis the damage done through misuse of alcohol.

How successful the lobbyists were in putting the focus on the complaints of business people, which included multi-million euro supermarkets chains — all the while making it look like it was all about the financial suffering of the “small man”.

What about the damage being done to the livers of some Irish citizens, as well as the wallets of others who pay the enormous healthcare bill there is each years as a result of dangerous drinking? As Road Safety Authority chairwoman Liz O’Donnell has said, politicians who oppose a law to “hide” alcohol from public view in retail outlets are not acting in the public interest.

The medics ended up getting quite an earful from the Fine Gaelers when they addressed that party on the benefits of the legislation. 

Maybe it would have been more effective for the politicians to spend tonight, for instance, in an accident and emergency department watching youngsters out of their heads on drink who’d been carted in by ambulance, or possibly to do a shift at a domestic violence shelter.

On that front, it was disappointing to see former Fine Gael TD Liam Twomey has taken up the role of chief medical officer with the alcohol industry sponsored group Drinkaware. 

It was a real coup for them to recruit a high-profile doctor, a one-time party health spokesman and former chairman of the Oireachtas Finance Committee who knows our political system and politicians, inside out, to such a position.

The plan now is to reintroduce the Alcohol Bill to the Seanad over the next few weeks. The minister has apparently been working away behind the scenes and, you’d imagine, girding her loins for the next round. 

However, given the hysteria generated by the last bout, you’d have to wonder at what Ms Corcoran Kennedy will face next, even though this legislation is committed to in the Programme for Government. 

As well as the segregation issue, we can expect some serious squealing over advertising and minimum pricing, as well as strict labeling and promotion restrictions.

On a related note there is the curious case of Transport Minister Shane Ross not backing this legislation. Quite incredibly, he went as far as saying he felt it could put retailers out of business. 

Then he introduces his own bill suggesting all drivers who are detected drink driving receive a disqualification. 

The proposal on its own makes absolute sense. However, in the context of not supporting the other legislation, and, it could be argued, almost reducing the chances of that succeeding by introducing his own bill, it looks it a very curious move. 

Of course, if it is some sort of strategic move, the logic of which we cannot yet discern, perhaps it makes ultimate sense to Mr Ross.

Happy St Patrick’s Day.


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