Political think tanked
An Irishman’s Diary about alcohol in public life
Now that the Great Lockout has been given its due, I wonder if some intrepid historian somewhere might have a go at an as-yet unwritten chapter in the making of modern Ireland. We’ll call it the Great Lock-in.
All right, late-night sessions behind closed pub doors would be only part of it, although I can think of one or two examples from recent times that might feature. In general, the subject would be the extent to which alcohol has influenced Irish public life, due to decision-makers being drunk or hungover at key moments.
This would pose some big challenges for the historian: lack of documentation being the most obvious. The Freedom of Information Act wouldn’t be much help. And even assuming you could find willing witnesses, the quality of recall might be a problem too.
Still, for a historian brave enough to attempt the project, there is encouragement from a recently published political memoir in the UK. The bad news is that the author is English. The good news is: only just.
Damian McBride, former special adviser to Gordon Brown, was born in London. But as he told Mark Hennessy of this newspaper recently, he identifies strongly with his father’s native Donegal. In the crucial matter of football, he supports Ireland, even against the country of his birth.
Not only that but, according to his memoir’s impressively detailed chapter on alcohol, he started drinking lager, at a very young age, while “watching the Gaelic football” with his dad.
From there, his thirst developed via some traditional London-Irish routes – working on the building sites aged 14, for example – and some less traditional: putting himself through Cambridge with a job behind the college bar.
By the time he was a junior civil servant in Customs, McBride was a functioning alcoholic: going to work at 7am, but sometimes catching up on paper-work in the early houses of Smithfield Market rather than his office.
After graduating to the Treasury, he was constantly on call to ministers. So this required a more disciplined regime: two quick pints at lunchtime, two hours in the pub after work, then back to the office with a six-pack for overtime, another can on the late-night Tube home, and after that four more on the sofa before falling asleep.
The impressive level of detail is maintained in his account of a notorious trip to Dubai, as Treasury’s head of communications, in 2003. This was a lock-in, Arab Emirate style.
Along with Gordon Brown, Ed Balls and others, McBride repaired to the British embassy to watch a televised game between his beloved Arsenal and Man United. In the process, he fortified himself with “15 cans”. And the beer, combined with a last-minute penalty miss by Ruud Van Nistelrooy, provoked him into an emotional, foul-mouthed celebration, witnessed by the ambassador, his children, a future prime minister, and others.
But none of this ever mattered to Gordon Brown, McBride recalls, “as long as I could tell him what was going to lead the Sunday papers”. And nobody else ever felt the need to have a word with him either, because he wasn’t unusual in Westminster: “There were lots of journalists, politicians and civil servants who were seen as infinitely worse than me”.
It all ended badly, of course, when he was exposed (by another London-Irishman, Guido Fawkes blogger Paul Staines) for plotting dirty tricks against Tories. That was an embarrassment too far for his boss, by then in No10, and the adviser had to go.
McBride’s public service career thus has at least superficial similarities with that of an Irish civil servant of the last century; a man who worked in the Custom House to boot. Brian O’Nolan managed to serve as private secretary to three government ministers while developing a serious drink and absenteeism problem. Yet it was another of his sins – a side career as newspaper columnist – that precipitated his demise.
Alcohol probably contributed to recklessness in both cases. But this might be an even bigger difficulty for the historian. Drink has lurked in the background of many rash decisions in Irish public life, from Béal na mBláth to Lapgate. The problem would be proving cause and effect.
Bad calls are made in sobriety too, after all. Witness Gordon Brown: a puritan by Westminster standards, “capable of nursing the same glass of wine for two hours at a Downing Street reception”. Unfortunately, he
exercised similar restraint when making his biggest decision. After becoming PM, while still popular, he led Britain to expect a snap election. Then he erred on the side of caution, and was never forgiven.