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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 21, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    Timing is everything

    Harry McGee

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    There is a recurring gag in the spoof movie Airplane featuring a veteran air traffic controller. It starts off with him lighting a cigarette and saying: I picked the wrong day to give up cigarettes.”

    The next scene we see him declaring that he picked up the wrong day to give up alcohol. And so forth, until right at the end of the film, he is completely out of it and inchoherent when saying: “I picked up the wrong day to give up crystal meths”.

    For some inexplicable reason, that scene came to mind when pondering on the events at the Fianna Fail parliamentary party.

    Logically, there are compelling reasons for bringing forward more stringent drink driving limits now. Ireland remains one of the few countries in Europe with a higher limit.

    But politically, the Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey’s proposals have been a disaster. Not the proposals per se, but their timing. He picked the wrong day to put them to the FF parliamentary party.

    I was elsewhere last night (doing a public Q and A with Michael D Higgins in fact – for more, see below). But my colleagues last night, and FF backbenchers today, said that some were spitting fire at Dempsey.

    In rural communities, especially the more isolated ones, this is going to cause hardship. The argument has been made that for some older people, the pub is their only social outlet. The new limits will mean they will not be able to have even one drink and drive home. And with pubs being small and communities being scattered it’s not practical for them to be left home.

    I have no idea how widespread that phenonenon is, or if that cohort is responsible for many accidents/deaths on Irish road. There is a strong counter argument that the public good in the guise of fewer accidents is stronger than the negative effect of social isolation. It is, admittedly, a very tricky subject to debate.

    What were the reasons for Dempsey to introduce the new rules at this particular moment in time? In the middle of economic chaos and the Government parties getting verbal lashings in the media every day. This is one more piece of bad news. But backbenchers have argued that it was unnecessary bad news as there was no compelling reason to introduce it now, a month before the Budget, rather than at some later stage. Equally, the RSA and the Government were keen to make sure it became reality before Christmas.

    But such was the rebellion from backbenchers last night that the Government seem to be content to longfinger the problem, using the cover of awaiting developments in Northern Ireland where similar measures are in gestation. It seems like a classic fudge.

    Dempsey was subject to verbal battering last night. He has lots of ideas but can often be very unfortunate in his timing like his abortive attempts to reintroduce third-level fees and to lower the number of seats in the Dáil by 40.

    * Michael D. There was a fabulous turnout last night for the interview with Michael D Higgins in Dublin last night as part of an NUI Galway series of events. I was the guy who was given the task of leading him through his four decades involvement with politics. They had only the most tentative connection with the long, flowing, meandering, but fantastic answers.

    He almost choked with emotion twice when remembering the hardship of his childhood near Newmarket-on Fergus in Co Clare. He also made an astounding defence of the role of the public intellectual in Irish political and social life.

    NUIG will be posting the video onto its website soon. If you have spare time (I think there is an hour) it is well worth listening for his personal reflections plus views on public life.

    And in a couple of his anecdotes, which Noel Dempsey might well learn from, he reemphasised the fact that timing in politics is everything.

    • Keith says:

      One doesn’t have to drink when one goes to the pub. Why is it presumed that people won’t socially engage with their community unless they have a shield of alcohol behind which to do it?

    • Eoin says:

      Given that NAMA is being debated in the chamber this afternoon, is Dempsey’s timing precise, i.e. backbenchers concerned with one issue while the main show smooths through? Too cynical?

    • dealga says:

      There’s a few parts to this. Keith’s point has been regularly made and it is a fairly obvious point but it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.

      First, due to a combination of Ireland’s generally poor weather and low population density the pub is the natural evening meeting place for rural communities. Unless community activists volunteer to create an alternative (because no one else will provide an alternative), it’s either the pub or stay at home.

      Second, if you do go to the pub, what do you drink? You want to have *something*, pubs won’t stay open long if nobody is buying anything or just drinking water, Alcoholic beverages are easier to sit over than water or soft drinks and many people find soft drinks unpleasant. If you go to the pub and have three or four cups of tea or coffee you’ll be up all night!

      A lazy assumption being made is that people are drinking to get drunk. They’re not teenagers, or ‘lads on the lash’. We are regularly told to drink responsibly and you can enjoy an alcoholic beverage beyond the fact it is alcoholic, and, contrary to lazy stereotypes, the vast majority are perfectly capable of drinking just to enjoy the product they are consuming.

      Now none of that is a defence of drink driving, it’s just a rebuttal of the ‘why do they have to drink?’ argument as if drinking is, in itself, inherently wrong or as if the affected people have a problem or have loads of other options to pass the time.

      The fact is it’s up to these communities to be proactive about the solutions rather than just whinging. Perhaps publicans could be given a tax break to buy minibuses to ferry their punters home at closing time (although, knowing this country, the insurance would be sky-high. Perhaps the publicans, or others, could plan a DD rota … whatever.

      There’s no excuse for drink driving, but it doesn’t mean concern for the effect on the community is misplaced.

    • No-moss-gathered, Dublin says:

      Pubs need to have food available at a reasonable price. Also competitively priced non-alcoholic drinks including juices. Caffeine drinks (tea, coffee, sparkling / fizzy drinks) keep people awake once they get home – government policies that accommodate alternatives to alcohol (even when there is transport available) will achieve the same type of ‘success’ as the smoking ban.

      Wider social issues – stress, pressure, loneliness, alienation (rural or urban) can be helped with broader social policy including not having a price on everything and losing sight of the cost – it’s not so long ago ago that childcare was ‘affordable’ because more parents lived within reach of friends and family etc – more money (a small fraction of the amounts that went into golf club ‘grants’ etc) into youth organisations like the Scouts will give a value system where money is only one part of a social make up – drinking can be social but ‘needing’ to drink to be social shows something very fundamental is missing from the lives of many in our society.


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