FERGUS FINLAY: Time to stop papering over ‘craics’ and tackle corrosive alcohol abuse

MY HEART went out to Terry Prone when I read her column yesterday. And even more to the man in her life. Mind you, I always envy Terry’s ability to make me smile about something that I’m certain was a scary experience.

The regulatory measures minister Leo Varadkar is introducing are part of the answer to our drink culture and the problems it causes.

At the best of times, even when you know there’s nothing too seriously wrong, it’s a frightening business waiting in accident and emergency. You get to watch a lot of people doing their jobs well, but overwhelmed by circumstance and pressure. And you watch while all the time worrying that they’ll never get to you.

It can, and usually does nowadays, take hours to get to the source of the medical problem that brought you to the Emergency Department in the first place. And then it can take hours more for treatment to begin, and for the little bit of human dignity that you carried into the hospital to be restored to you in a proper hospital bed.

In the process of going through all this, Terry and the man in her life became statistics. One more added to the numbers who wait for hours in the Emergency Department, and get reported each day by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation. And one more added to the thousands of anxious relatives and loved ones who wait — and never get reported at all.

One of the things that doesn’t get reported nearly enough is the pressure on accident and emergency caused by alcohol abuse. But it’s real, and significant. A few years ago, a study sponsored by the Department of Health demonstrated that one in every four admissions to Irish Emergency Departments was directly caused by alcohol abuse.

The researchers interviewed hundreds of people waiting for admission. Some patients were still too drunk to be able to complete the simple questionnaire involved. Hundreds acknowledged heavy drinking in the run up to their admission. A minority were there because, although sober themselves, they had been hurt by someone who was drunk. By far the largest number of drink-related admissions, naturally, happened on Saturday and Sunday night.

That’s the scientific evidence. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the figures if anything are higher still. That study was carried out when overall alcohol consumption was on the rise in Ireland — right now overall consumption is on the way down. But we still remain, in all the studies, a country with among the highest incidences of problem drinking.

It’s drinking that has consequences. You know that phrase “victimless crime”? Alcohol abuse isn’t a crime anywhere, but if it were, it would be a crime that has endless victims. The Emergency Department is only one area where there would be no problem of overcrowding if it weren’t for the abuse of alcohol. No matter what study you read, the relationship between alcohol abuse and family breakdown, or domestic violence, or gang behaviour, or almost any of the social issues that trouble us all the time, is profound.

To my shame, I’ve tended to take this for granted. It’s what we do in Ireland, isn’t it? If you’re having a family party, you stock up with drink. Births, marriages and deaths — we celebrate them all, and someone always gets drunk.We get to football matches early so we can have a few pints before kick-off — and leave our seats before half-time so we can be first in the queue for the bar.

GK Chesterton said about us that “all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad”. Our songs are often about drink, aren’t they? Look up a phrase like “Irish drinking songs” on the web, and you’ll find hundreds of them. When I did it, one of the first sites I found offered an entire selection of Irish songs to accompany my next pub crawl.

I don’t know whether culture informs behaviour or whether behaviour copper-fastens culture. But we all know, I think, that our historic relationship with alcohol is a deeply unhealthy one.

That’s why, when I was approached by Diageo and asked to talk to them about alcohol abuse, I seized the opportunity. Of course I was sceptical — Ireland’s largest drinks’ manufacturer worried about too much alcohol being consumed? But they convinced me that they wanted to be part of the solution to a problem that is creating untold damage — and when a group of us came together, Diageo gave us a written memorandum that underpins our independence from them.

It’s a group of people I’m really proud to be a part of. So what we’ve decided to do, together, is to set out to change a culture that has caused far too much damage.

We’re not kidding ourselves that it’s going to be easy. There’s nothing harder than culture change. But we’ve done it before in Ireland. When I was a young man (and I’m guessing a great many readers will recognise this) we thought nothing of getting behind the wheel of a car with far too much alcohol on board. Sometimes we’d even boast the following morning about how we’d driven home when we were too drunk to walk.

I have four adult daughters now. They would each find that behaviour inconceivable. They just couldn’t do it. And even though we know there are still some young people who will drink and drive — and the fatality statistics are there to show it — they’re a tiny minority. In that respect at least the culture change has happened.

Stiffer penalties, better enforcement, tougher insurance — all of these things have played a huge part in this pretty fundamental behaviour change. But you simply can’t imagine a young person nowadays boasting about driving a car while drunk.

We’re hoping to hold a mirror up to the other stuff we do (and boast about). We’re always talking about Ireland and the craic — it’s time we started talking about some of the other stuff that happens when the craic goes too far. The times we let ourselves down, or our kids down. The days we lose at work. The people who get hurt, because we’re too much in love with the craic.

HOLDING up a mirror isn’t enough though. The regulatory measures that Leo Varadkar is introducing now are part of the answer. But what we really want to do is to build a people’s campaign — to bring this subject out into the open and really begin to focus on changing attitudes and behaviour at every level. You’ll be seeing stuff in the near future about public meetings and workshops, and we’d love you to get involved in them. And we’ve set up a website — www.rolemodels.ie — where you can contribute ideas and experiences too.

We all know there’s a problem. We all know it causes damage. We all know, I think, that we may be, or may have been, part of the problem. It’s one of those issues where we all, with one voice, need to start saying stop. Alcohol abuse is the one bit of our culture — and our reputation — where there is simply nothing to be proud of. We can change that, if we’re all a bit more honest with each other and with ourselves. That means me. And maybe you too.

Alcohol abuse is the one bit of our culture, and reputation, where there is nothing to be proud of.

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