Calling time on the Dáil bar

Opinion: Politicians need to lead by example when it comes to alcohol

“There are 176,999 dependent drinkers in Ireland. There are 1.34 million harmful drinkers in Ireland. One in eight men and one in 10 women drank their recommended weekly guidelines in one sitting. That’s what you call a session.” Photograph: Getty Images

“There are 176,999 dependent drinkers in Ireland. There are 1.34 million harmful drinkers in Ireland. One in eight men and one in 10 women drank their recommended weekly guidelines in one sitting. That’s what you call a session.” Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Jun 30, 2014, 12:00

Earlier this week I stumbled across my appointments diary from 2007. It’s only seven years ago, but there’s a sense of a time capsule about it. I opened it up on a random week in November; Pantibar was launching, Amy Winehouse must have cancelled a gig because her name was crossed out, and the model Katy French’s birthday party was marked for a weekday. When you see things like that written down, the memories of the time are curiously vivid.

But I remembered something I had pretty much forgotten. In the aftermath of French’s death, I ended up on a panel on The Late Late Show to talk about the drug and alcohol abuse of young people. Aged 24 at the time, it was pretty obvious to me the bender my generation was on was monumental. Between 1980 and 2010, while the rest of Europe decreased their alcohol intake by an average of 15 per cent, we increased ours by 24 per cent.

Our alcohol consumption peaked in 2001, but 2007 was still high, and the last drunken belch of the Celtic Tiger was about to give way to a serious hangover. On that edition of The Late Late Show, I remember saying that we’d already pretty much lost this generation of youngsters in terms of responsible drinking, that extreme drunkenness was a norm, and that it was now important to focus on educating young teenagers about how to enjoy alcohol responsibly, and not to keep falling into the same hammered patterns that we had to date. So seven years ago, our now legal drinkers were 11. We haven’t exactly done right by them.

Frustrating

I’d really hate to work in any area tasked with producing reports about how wasted Irish people get. It honestly must be one of the most frustrating jobs imaginable.

Year in year out, reports are produced that pose apocalyptic scenarios about our alcohol intake, and nothing happens. Year in year out, politicians make promises related to alcohol consumption and the damage that excessive consumption does. Ban happy hours! Get rid of alcohol brands sponsoring sporting tournaments! Tackle below-cost selling of alcohol in supermarkets! And then, nothing happens.

Successive Irish governments’ so-called “action” on the vast problems that alcohol causes in Ireland carries the same weight as a drunken yob’s rant as he’s chucked out of a boozer. It’s all guff, and no one will remember it in the morning.

Alcohol diaries

Jean Long and Deirdre Morgan are two of those people fighting the good fight, having authored the Alcohol Consumption in Ireland 2013: Analysis of a National Alcohol Diary Survey report published last week. It’s a fascinating study, analysing the alcohol diaries of 6,000 people, and the stats hit harder than Jaegerbombs.

There are 176,999 dependent drinkers in Ireland. There are 1.34 million harmful drinkers in Ireland. One in eight men and one in 10 women drank their recommended weekly guidelines in one sitting. That’s what you call a session.

Seventy-five per cent of all alcohol consumed was done as part of a binge-drinking session. That’s what you call an epidemic. The myth of alcoholics being booze-soaked pensioners is just that. Dependent drinking is highest in the 18- to 24-year-old age group.

In the week prior to this study being conducted, €50.6 million was spent on alcohol. Some 3,230 work or study years were lost through alcohol-related illness in the year prior to the study.

It will take a few generations to dismantle the problem-drinking Irish people engage in. But we need to start trying to find that delicate balance between treating people like responsible adults and protecting them until they act like them. Binge drinking is exacerbated by licensing laws that constrain people to drinking within a set amount of time. Therefore they should be extended.

Peak drunkenness

Anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to throw everyone out on to the street at the same time so they hit peak drunkenness while someone bumps off them in the queue for the taxi, clearly doesn’t spend enough time in these situations to realise it’s a stupid idea. Decent laws should facilitate good behaviour, not constrain everyone in the hope that nothing bad happens.

But there’s one thing politicians could do right now. One thing that would actually show they want to lead by example. Close the Dáil bar. Shut it down.

Maybe it’s tokenistic, but failing any political will whatsoever to tackle boozing (outside of the work that has been done on combatting drink-driving, which happened through a combination of political will, policing and a widespread change in public attitudes), it would at least set an example.

How many workplaces have a pub in them? Unless you’re working for some jazzy start-up and necking craft beers while playing table tennis after your Tuesday bitcoin meeting, it’s not exactly acceptable behaviour to go for a drink while in your workplace.

So close the Dáil bar. Let’s start with a symbol, because you have to start somewhere.

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