There's no getting away from alcohol in Ireland.
The pic shows a two and a half storey high ad for Jameson whiskey facing a local authority flat block in the centre of Dublin. In other parts of the city alcohol advertising is even more pervasive. The controversial JCDecaux billboards that went up earlier this year target drivers and are dominated by ads for Heineken and Southern Comfort, and in recent weeks lamp-posts in town were draped in banners announcing Guinness's 250th anniversary. Some days the smell of fermenting hops from St. James's Gate even reaches as far as Kildare Street.
Wasn't it Diageo that found themselves in difficulty a few years ago when they started giving away tricolours with a pint of plain plonked in the centre of the flag? That company sends Oireachtas members an occasional newsletter celebrating their alcohol products, and take care in ensuring that public representatives know about their tips for responsible drinking through sites such as DrinkIQ and MEAS -the 'Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society'. Worthy though those initiatives are, I suspect their total budget is less than 1% of what the drink industry spends on advertising their products. The Licensed Vitners also sends an invitation every Christmas to their annual knees-up for TDs and Senators, but so far I haven't taken them up on their drinks offer.
Don't get me wrong, I'm fond of a drink myself, but I do think we need to move alcohol away from centre-stage. I don't think alcohol should be tied into sports sponsorship - I'd much prefer if such funding came from general taxation.
Drink driving has hit the headlines in the last few days, with Noel Dempsey's proposal to reduce legal blood alcohol limits to the norm in other European Counties. The rate is proposed to come down from 0.08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.05 BAC for most drivers, and 0.02 BAC for professional drivers, learner drivers, and for the first two years after you've passed your driving test.
Apparently Fianna Fáil's Parliamentary Party had an animated discussion of the issue last night with a fair amount of support for maintaining the status quo. I can understand that feelings run high on this issue. There's even one or two Green Party members in Dún Laoghaire who have voiced their concern to me on the Bill, and that's in a constituency where most residents have a pub that's a short walk away. They have pointed out that we should enforce the existing laws rather than extending them, and feel that there should be a graduated system of penalty points that might start at 2 points for being slightly over the limit and extending to losing your license for much higher blood alcohol levels.
The Oireachtas is a predominantly male institution, and it tends to concentrate on very male concerns. Any proposal to cut down on drink-driving gets a chorus of male disapproval, but I don't recall hearing too many TDs talk about the need for more mini-buses to get older people (mostly women) to and from Bingo.
I haven't got too many representations from constituents on changing the law on drink driving, but I can see that for many non-Dublin TDs and Senators the issue has loomed large. I'd hope that any debate around this issue might concentrate people's minds on the need to have decent planning. This can ensure that more homes are within walking distance of the pub, -and indeed the church and school for that matter. However, if you have a laissez-faire approach to planning that allows you to build houses almost anywhere, then you shouldn't be surprised if high numbers of people are killed driving to and from the pub. Thankfully the Public Against Road Carnage (PARC) group have done much to raise awareness and tackle driving deaths on Donegal's roads, a county that has one of the highest levels of road deaths.
Road conditions, fatigue and speed also contribute to road deaths. Sgt. Colm Finn, head of the Forensic Collision Investigation Unit based at Dublin Castle, said in 2007 that the normal speed limit of 80kph is quite often too fast on rural roads in places like Donegal, and mentioned road conditions as a factor. Lowering speed limits can reduce accident rates, and has the added benefit of improving fuel consumption and lowering carbon emissions. Fatigue has also been identified as a contributing factor in road deaths.
There's a lot we need to do to reduce the role of alcohol in Irish life. One of the areas where I found agreement with Michael McDowell was on the issue of small café-bars that could counter-act the rise of the super-pub, but even his limited proposals were easily defeated by the drinks lobby. Eamon Ryan in his role as Minister for Communications and Mary Harney as Minister for Health are working on measures to further tighten and refine existing codes to protect the nation’s health from excessive alcohol advertising. I'd be happier if they completely banned alcohol advertising and sponsorship, and put a health warning on the label. I don't believe that the voluntary codes are working. As least we now have random breath testing, which is a step in the right direction. Dr. Gerry Hickey from Alcohol Response Ireland has done good work on raising public awareness of problem drinking and is well aware from his own work of the damage that alcohol can cause.
As I write it seems that the Taoiseach has kicked the issue into touch, saying that any change might have to be looked at in a cross-border context. That will probably remove any imminent threat of revolt from the back-benches. Personally I'd favour the proposed reduction, and I suspect that we'll return to the issue early in the new year, if not before. The UK and Ireland are out of step with the rest of Europe, and I'd like to see the limits lowered.