Saturday, January 12, 2008

Less craic and more crackdown as Ireland takes a sober look at drinking

“One drink is too many for me and a thousand not enough,” the Irish writer Brendan Behan once quipped, encapsulating in a phrase his countrymen’s love affair with alcohol.

The pub is intrinsic to Ireland’s self-image: it is a source of pride that the harp that adorns its passport is displayed equally prominently on a pint of its most famous brand, Guinness.

Yet while alcohol and the Irish may seem to have been good for one another the Government has just suggested that it thinks otherwise, beginning an urgent investigation into a growing binge-drinking culture. Alcohol consumption has risen 17 per cent in the past decade.

“We have a problem with binge drinking in this country and it is clear that this problem is adding to public disorder,” Brian Lenihan, the Justice Minister, said. He is setting up an advisory group to review laws governing the sale of beer, wine and spirits. Mr Lenihan plans new legislation by Easter and has suggested that he will raise the legal age for buying alcohol from 18 to 21 and introduce on-the-spot fines for drink-related offences.

Ironically, the same Fianna Fáil-led Government that began liberalising Ireland’s licensing laws in 2000 is racing to tighten them up. The decline of the rural pub, it is now accepted, predates the smoking ban of March 2004 but a crackdown on after-hours drinking — one of the accepted pillars of social life in the West — probably encouraged the move towards home entertainment. Demographics, tougher drink-driving laws and higher mortgage repayments are all contributing to the steady disappearance of a more familiar drinking culture of traditional fiddle music around homely peat fires, which tourism chiefs still promote.

The number of off-licences has trebled from 600 to 1,800 in the past seven years and they are never busier than on St Patrick’s Day, March 17. The Irish Times described this recently as “the most depressing and dangerous day of the year”, when the binge-drinking regiments command the streets of the capital and big towns and cities. More than 700 people were arrested for public order offences on St Patrick’s Day last year, more than double the previous year.

The A&E department at Cork University Hospital estimates that, nationwide, a quarter of emergency department admissions arise from alcohol-related illnesses, abuse or attacks.

Irish 15 and 16-year-olds are at the top of the international league for drinking alcohol and Irish girls of this age are at the very top of the league for binge drinking, according to Rolande Anderson, an alcohol counsellor with the Irish College of General Practitioners. “There are strong links between alcohol use, unintentional and unprotected sex and sexual assaults. During the last decade sexually transmitted infections have gone up by 165 per cent,” he said.

A Eurobarometer survey last year found that Irish households spend three times more on alcohol than other European countries and more than ten times as much as Greece.

The definition of binge drinking, however, is as much as source of anger as it is a concern in many Dublin pubs. Seánaí, a 23-year-old television researcher drinking in Doyles bar in central Dublin, said: “According to how they work this out, once you hit four pints you’re on a binge and for women it’s even less, but that’s just got the night started.” Tim, another Doyles regular, said that he found it difficult to sit with continental Europeans nursing a glass for hours. “We need to knock back the pints in a way they don’t. I’m positive that we have inherited this from previous generations.”

A recent attempt by Michael McDowell, the former Justice Minister, to chaperone drinkers towards a café-bar culture was allegedly scuppered by Ireland’s rich and powerful drinks lobby.

In a country where it is claimed that 40 per cent of the members of the Irish Parliament are publicans the vested interests seem to run deep.

Source: Times Online

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