Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Butt out Angela Merkel, Ireland is having another drink

Being Irish is becoming a by-word for a number of things these days, not all of them good.  Our reputation for extreme deference is now well enough established for protestors as far away as Egypt to hold banners aloft declaring ‘WE ARE NOT IRISH’ to convey their determination to stand up to bad government.  So we should look hard at how we got into our current difficulties and demand that our government sort it out? Apparently not. 

The recommended response to the Irish banking crisis, courtesy of the Irish Sunday Independent

Step forward the Independent on Sunday (24th April) with the startling news that we are already ‘sick of sackcloth and ashes; tired of being the sick men and women of Europe.  Let's party tonight, and tomorrow worry about the IMF and bitch about the bankers'.  Ah yes, the perfect solution to the long, booze-soaked disaster that was the banking-cum-property frenzy: a long, booze-soaked slide into chaos.  Don't think, don't protest, don't get organised: get sozzled.  And who cares about  ‘those still shaking a Teutonic fist and wagging a Gallic finger at our profligacy’.  As the Sindo continues so rightly 'In Greece, they rioted on the streets.  In Dublin, they are drinking and eating with renewed and refreshing vigour'.  So butt out Chancellor Merkel, we're having another drink.
Fair play of course to the Irish vintners and restaurateurs for doing their bit for tourism and the economy, as commended by new Transport & Tourism Minister, Leo Varadkar, at the Restaurants Association of Ireland Conference last week.  But the Minster’s  Road Traffic Bill  introducing mandatory breath tests for drivers involved in traffic accidents, while strongly supported in most quarters, raised carefully worded notes of caution from rural TDs - no doubt under pressure from publicans anxious about trade.  Longford TD James Bannon swore in the Dail for example that ‘I am in no way advocating or condoning drink driving’ (of course not) and made the cry, perhaps too floridly, ‘Let us bring in every imaginable regulation to prevent this abuse’.  But then, getting down to the real business, the Deputy mysteriously told us that ‘in the interests of balance...I must talk out of both sides of my mouth this evening’.  Brilliant. 

Drinking alcohol will help prevent suicide? 

Balance, it turns out, was weighing the deaths from drink-driving against those of ‘loneliness which is a major contributor to suicide and the destruction of the fabric of rural communities’ (meaning pubs).  Good argument, but the other rural killer, according to Bannon, is that being denied ‘a couple of pints owing to a lack of transport is a form of death’.  And if that doesn’t get you, a ‘lack of social contact for people in remote areas leads them to believe they would be better off dead’.  The spirit of Christy O’Sullivan lives on.  So, is Deputy Bannon suggesting that more people will die if Minister Varadkar makes it tougher for drunk drivers to avoid detection?  As Independent TD Finian McGrath pointed out in the same Dail debate, ‘while recognising that the solution is not drinking and driving’ we should be ‘coming up with other radical and sensible ideas’.

It's not restricting drink-driving that is a threat to Irish pubs it's the industry's own restrictive practices

Surely the most radical and sensible idea of them all is to ask why drinking to excess is the solution to every Irish problem?  Where in the rest of the world do we hear people even begin to argue that the cure for recession, loneliness, suicide, a banking crisis, tourism and economic collapse is a royal piss up?  To take the very reasonable argument that rural pubs are important to people, why are they not functioning like rural cafes and bars in the rest of Europe and selling a range of good quality,  soft drinks, coffee, tea and snacks - at any time and at affordable prices?  The answer is a surprising one when we look at the lengths TD’s have gone to, to debate the delcine of rural pubs without mentioning it.  As far back as 1998 the Competition Authority reached the conclusion that:

"All of the restrictions inherent in the system of licensing of pubs make it impossible for the market to function efficiently and in the best interests of the consumer."

Or to quote them in full:

"The effect of the liquor licensing regime has been to distort the retail drinks market. While Ireland has exported the Irish pub concept to the rest of the world, the licensing system here has actually destroyed many traditional pubs in Dublin. Meanwhile, Ireland is largely deprived of innovations like French-style cafes, which sell a broad range of products. Ultimately this restrictive system has imposed a huge cost on consumers in terms of high prices, poor quality, lack of choice and little innovation."

On the same subject Forfas reported to the Consumer Strategy Group in 2004 that Ireland is world-class again, this time as 'the most expensive country in the Eurozone to purchase soft drinks'.  It additionally and uniquely applies the same full rate of VAT to soft drinks as it does alcohol.  Further, "an analysis of the retail prices of 13 individual brands of soft drinks across the EU15 reveals that 12 out of 13 soft drinks are more expensive in Ireland even when price-adjusted for VAT".  And a straw poll will tell you that these over-priced soft drinks are also very poor quality and come in very small measures. The industry seems to want us to drink nothing but alcoholic drinks when we visit a pub. 

When I asked Gerry Mellett, the President of the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, on Dublin CityFM why pubs don’t sell a better range of non-alcoholic drinks, he rightly said pubs would like to, but the distributors won’t let them.  We are, as the Consumer Association report says, once again in the grip of big business.  'Five manufacturers / distributors dominate the Irish market: Diageo Ireland Ltd, Heineken, Beamish & Crawford, Irish Distillers (IDL) and Dillon & Co Ltd' and the soft drinks trade is dominated by Coca Cola Ireland and C & C, who between them have created a situation where the big money is in  ensuring that Irish pubs remain the home of large measures of addictive, alcoholic drinks.  The restrictive practice referred to in the Forfas report limits not only the range and price of the drinks pubs can sell but the number of pubs who can sell them.  That has been known to be the cause since 1998, in spite of what Deputy Bannon is arguing, of the decline in rural pubs - not a restriction on drunken drivers roaming country roads. And since Deputy Bannon invokes the subject in this context, the causative link between alcohol and suicide is well documented.

When the Independent on Sunday recommends that we drink our way out of the recession, in fact they are, knowingly or not, helping only one industry get out of the recession: the drinks industry.  And while that industry contributes to our economy in taxes and jobs, the EU has calculated that for every Euro it contributes we are paying out up to 100 Euro to repair the damage alcohol causes, including costs for absenteeism, social break-down, crime and ill-health.    

1 comment:

  1. Interesting debate on this post and the rural pub issue in particular on Politics.ie link below