Powerful play by drinks sector to block ban on sponsorship of major sporting events
FoI documents show lobbying campaign went to top level of Government
While drinks companies and sporting bodies never made any secret of their disdain for any sponsorship ban, the FoI records point to a concerted push by a well-resourced and well-informed industry to bring its concerns directly into the heart of Government. Photograph: Inpho/Lorraine O’Sullivan
The drinks industry engaged in a sustained effort to dissuade the Coalition from banning the sponsorship of major sporting events by drink companies, official records show.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show the industry’s lobbying campaign went to the top level of the Government. It featured global and national business figures, and interventions with Ministers were made at sensitive points in the debate.
The Coalition ultimately decided not to proceed with a sponsorship ban, but not before a battle between Minister of State for Health Alex White, who championed the proposal, and key Fine Gael Ministers.
Chief among the opponents was Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar, who successfully argued that there should be no ban without alternative funding for sports bodies to replace income foregone from sponsorship. Mr Varadkar had further concern that banning sponsorship could damage Ireland’s aspirations to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023.
The Government settled a new alcohol policy last October. The centrepiece is minimum pricing, which may yet run foul of European competition law.
Instead of banning sponsorship, the question was farmed out to an official working group for further scrutiny. Ministers told this group, which is but the latest in a line of official bodies to examine the matter, to report back within a year.
After prolonged conflict and haggling within the Coalition, any early resumption of moves to ban sponsorship is now considered unlikely.
While drink companies and sporting bodies never made any secret of their disdain for any sponsorship ban, the FoI records point to a concerted push by a well-resourced and well-informed industry to bring its concerns directly into the heart of Government.
The campaign went right up to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, ranking members of the Cabinet and top civil servants.
The documents further show that one drinks industry figure claimed insight into a core aspect of a Government memorandum circulated to line departments for observations. Such memos are supposed to be confidential – and this was before the Cabinet had discussed the memo.
The Irish Times has separately established that the then chief of Diageo (which owns Guinness), Paul Walsh, expressed concern about the sponsorship question with Mr Kenny at the World Economic Forum one year ago in Davos, Switzerland.
At the time, Mr Walsh was one of the world’s most powerful executives in the drinks industry. He raised the matter again with the Taoiseach in a letter following their meeting. His anxieties about the mooted ban were later relayed to other Government figures, it is understood.
The records were released by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan had a direct political interest in the debate as a sponsorship ban, depending on how it was framed, might have cut off drinks industry support for certain arts events and festivals. This includes high-profile events such as the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and Cork Guinness Jazz Festival.