Under the influence


Connect: 'Who runs this country?" demanded Dingle publican Dan O'Keeffe. He was speaking from the podium at this week's Portlaoise meeting of 1,200 Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) members. There was a brief pause - about as long as it takes an optic to dispense a single measure of spirits - before a belligerent O'Keeffe answered his rhetorical question. "We do!" he boomed.

He seemed to believe it too. Perhaps he's right, but in spite of the customary and alliterative lumping together of "politicians, priests and publicans" as traditional powerbrokers in this society, O'Keeffe's declaration was salutary. Everybody knows that publicans (not all, but many) make lots of loot. But surely the idea that 6,000 VFI publicans "run" this country is deluded? After all, if Dan O'Keeffe is right, it means the entire country is literally under the influence of drink. The retailers of ale, beer, lager, stout, whiskey, brandy, gin, rum, vodka, wine, alcopops, cider, mixers, soft drinks, sandwiches, crisps, peanuts and whatever you're having yourself are, in O'Keeffe's view, the single most powerful group in the land. This is doubtful, Dan.

In economic terms, publicans are certainly powerful. Pat Nolan, editor of Drinks Industry Ireland magazine, says that consumers spent €5.5 billion on drink (pubs and other outlets) last year. This figure, he adds, is equivalent to 9.5 per cent of total consumer expenditure here. So, one euro in every €10 or €11 spent in this State goes on drink. That's significant but hardly dominant.

In social terms, publicans are certainly pivotal. Too much social life in Ireland revolves around pubs and the ersatz "Irish pub" is now a garish feature of cities worldwide. It's part of the McDonalds-isation of alcohol. To be Irish in one of these places invariably means feeling more foreign and alienated than gullible punters who can't be expected to know any better.

Still, even though the internationalised "Irish pub" is, at best, a pastiche of Irishness, the very existence of such places defers to the quasi-mythic reputation of Irish public houses. As a branding exercise, it maintains and strengthens the fiction that Irish people are not only consumers of alcohol but are practically consumed by their liking for liquor.

This makes Irish pubs double-edged. In one sense, they are, as VFI propaganda would have it, utterly central to Irish social life. In another, however, publicans are the dispensers of the principal form of substance abuse in this country. Forget smack, coke, weed - even cigarettes - alcohol wreaks more damage, as well as gives more pleasure, than all other drugs combined.

The "craic", as tipsy to drunken banter is lamentably known, claims more victims than "crack". Fair enough, most people will escape the "craic" with memories of hangovers, perhaps a few regretted, drunken, libidinal escapades and abiding embarrassment at the effects of too much drink. But not all will. There are thousands of people who rue ever entering a pub in the first place.

Of course, it's unfair to blame publicans exclusively for alcoholism and its woes. But as profiteers from a substance that causes road crashes, family breakdown, violence, poverty, work absenteeism, degradation, homelessness, murder, suicide, manslaughter, madness and other fatal and serious illnesses, publicans are inextricably linked with alcohol's downside too.

It's an emotional argument. Yet in spite of the horrendously negative effects of alcohol, prohibition cannot be seriously considered. The American experience from 1920 to 1933 was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in the US. Not surprisingly, it failed.

More than a century ago publicans became especially powerful figures in Irish life. The spread of the railways from the mid-19th century had allowed commercial brewers and distillers to get their products into rural Ireland. Guinness, for instance, sold just 20 per cent of its produce in rural Ireland in 1855. By 1880, this had doubled to 40 per cent as the drinks trade expanded.

Predictably, public houses increasingly became the focus of community life and publicans dominated local government in many areas. They were also vital sources of credit for farmers and most pubs then sold groceries. Public houses were, in short, where most people spent most of their money. Naturally, publicans became substantial local figures.

They still are, but whether they "run the country" is another matter. The Government, IBEC, the banks, multinational companies, lawyers, our wonderful entrepreneurs - one of whom has had the extraordinary perspicacity to observe that Ireland is going "communist" - presumably disagree. Pubs may be more profitable than ever but so are lots of other businesses.

Anyway, Dan O'Keeffe's sentiment about "running" this country seems misguided. Although publican power has not been diluted as thoroughly as that of priests and VFI chief executive Tadgh O'Sullivan battles on in cadences more reminiscent of dictatorial pronouncements than protest, the politicians look set to win this latest spat over smoking.

Meanwhile, droves of healthier drinkers will continue to wreck other people's lives. Sláinte!