We are ourselves the most persistent purveyors of the image of the drinking Irish
Pressures being exerted on government over its proposed public health policies
Investment may be problematic if we “have an environment that is very, very anti-alcohol”. Photograph: Eric Luke
In recent weeks, we got a degree of insight into the kinds of pressures being exerted on the Government over some of its proposed public health policies in relation to alcohol.
In an interview in the Sunday Business Post recently, Diageo’s country director in Ireland, David Smith, talked about scaling back the company’s operation here if we became what he called, somewhat ironically perhaps for Guinness drinkers, a “dark market”.
The logic proposed was that a negative business environment for Diageo’s products could be created if the Government followed through on proposed legislative changes in relation to alcohol sponsorship of sporting events.
“If our Irish business is diminished by this, there is less need to invest. If we don’t have the freedom we need in Ireland, we will pull back,” Smith said.
It was an extraordinary threat, and Smith went on to talk about the Government being involved in “political headlines” in relation to its alcohol policies. In the days after these comments, Diageo was keen to deny that the sponsorship ban would lead to a scaling back of operations here, but the company’s corporate affairs director for western Europe, Peter O’Brien, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that it would be difficult for them to win business and investment for Ireland “if we have an environment that is very, very anti-alcohol”.
The comments were made on the back of a €3 million investment plan for the Smithwick’s visitor centre in Kilkenny, and over a year since Diageo decided to invest €153 million in St James’s Gate Brewery. The implications were clear: Diageo remains committed to Ireland, as long as Ireland remains committed to Guinness being good for us.
As this corporate show of muscle played out, official Ireland’s ongoing buttressing of the drunken Paddy image, which we pretend to resent, also played itself out last month through the manner in which aspects of the recent visit by Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper were portrayed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Through the Twitter account @dfatirl, managed by its press office, the department helped welcome him to Ireland by sending out a tweet of him holding a pint of Guinness, with the words: “Sláinte! Canadian PM enjoy [sic] some Irish hospitality from our friends @GuinnessIreland”.
During Harper’s first afternoon in Ireland, the department tweeted or retweeted three pictures that featured Guinness branding or products.
During that same period, five tweets had been sent out from the Canadian prime minister’s official account and three of these were alcohol-related.
Regina Doherty TD felt compelled to challenge the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, calling their endorsements a “real shame” and committing to raising the issue in Dáil Éireann. Given that the department previously collaborated with Drinkaware – the drinks industry-funded organisation that encourages “drinking responsibility” – on a “survival guide” to Euro 2012, it is difficult to see how Doherty can persuade the Government department to adopt a more sobering tone.
The interesting question though is how did we get to the point where it was OK for the Government to support the stereotypical boozy image of Ireland through such blatant product promotion.
Admittedly, it is difficult trying to separate the stereotype from the State when you have, for example, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Leo Varadkar, calling the now annualised Arthur’s Day celebrations “a great platform to spread the word about The Gathering”. This is a Government Minister, who has since expressed concerns about the impact a ban on alcohol companies and products sponsoring sports might have, deciding that a clever marketing initiative by a major multinational drinks company is a suitable vehicle for marketing a country with well-reported issues in relation to alcohol.
Brewed over time
Some academics have pointed to Elizabethan dramatists and even Shakespeare himself as helping to project some of the early examples of the drunken and wild Irish stereotypes.
You’ll see the negative portrayal in 19th-century British newspaper cartoons of Irish persons with exaggerated monkey features and drinking from bottles, or more recently in comments by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg about inebriated Irish hanging out their windows celebrating St Patrick’s Day.
But who can blame others for the lazy stereotyping when we continue to accommodate the obligatory photo opportunities of visiting foreign dignitaries sinking a pint of plain on visits here? We even insisted Queen Elizabeth II visited a brewery, for God’s sake!
The truth is that the greatest peddlers of the drunken Irish stereotype are the Irish themselves.
By buying into the stereotype, and officially endorsing it, we make it hugely difficult to redefine our cultural associations around alcohol and for Government to formulate effective public health policy, free from industry pressures.
Brian O’Connell is a journalist and broadcaster whose book Wasted: A Sober Journey through Drunken Ireland examined Ireland’s alcohol culture. Twitter: @oconnellbrian