I will celebrate an immediate alcohol sponsor ban, but I won’t drink to it

  • Post category:News

From the Irish Examiner

By Victoria White

Thursday, July 19, 2012

WE HAVE seen the line between what ’s right and wrong, what ’s good and bad.


If you, the Government, go the wrong side of the line, we will know you are wrong and bad.

Because there is no moral argument against ending the sponsorship of sports and cultural events by drinks companies. That ’s what the steering group on the national substance misuse strategy recommends. That ’s what junior minister Roisin Shortall says she wants  — but not until 2016.

Under pressure, particularly from a trio of ministers  — Jimmy Deenihan, Simon Coveney, and Leo Varadkar  — she has backed down on the timeline. She has “extended out” the date for compliance with the proposed Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, because she wants to be “reasonable”.

“Extended out” beyond the latest possible date for the next general election; “extended out” beyond that ringing centenary year, 2016, when we will be back in the markets and “the best small country in the world in which to do business”.

I am not “reasonable”. I want the ban on sponsorship of culture and sports events by drinks companies now. That ’s why I couldn ’t be a politician. If we can ’t expect festivals and events to find new sponsors overnight, we can expect them to do so within four years.

If they can ’t, tough, because sponsorship by alcohol companies is money stained with death; stained with “suicides” caused by steady alcohol poisoning; stained with the inconsolable grief of partners, parents, children, friends, all of whom are consequently exposed to a hugely increased risk of dying the same death.

Stained with the blood of the victims in a third of fatal car crashes; with the horror of half of the women who are sexually assaulted; with the distress of one in four sitting in emergency departments. Stained with the torture of a third of women abused by their partners; with the inextinguishable grief of the family and friends of half of murder victims; stained with the suffering of those involved in so much street violence.

Every seven hours in Ireland, someone dies because of drink. Their families grieve; some of them drink. The cycle begins again. Have you traced a family tree in Ireland? We did. Can ’t get past the first stump, because we don ’t have a clue what happened to one of us. He vanished. The only explanation of contemporaries was drink. “Sure, he drank.” And so did he, and him, and him. That ’s most of the branches lopped off at the trunk.

We don ’t know anything about the women ’s drinking. Maybe they did and maybe they didn ’t. They were victims of alcohol abuse, either way.

Their descendant, my nine-year-old daughter, has just come knocking to ask me why I ’m working on a sunny afternoon. Now, she ’s running around the garden in front of me. My 11-year-old son is reading in the sun. His twin, who got a dose of genetic inheritance in the form of autism, is in the park with his teacher. My 13-year-old lounges upstairs in bed. He has male flu.

All on the cusp of their teen years. All, potentially, carrying an alcoholic gene. It ’s clear our family is approaching an emergency for which it is not prepared.

And the Cabinet has decided not to discuss the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill this week. Perhaps not until after the summer recess.

Ministers Varadkar, Coveney, and Deenihan have reservations about the introduction of the ban on sponsorship by alcohol companies because it might impact on their own sectors.

Like the three bears, they don ’t want Goldilocks Shortall on their patch. Not culture, says Deenihan. Not tourism or sport, says Varadkar, Not agriculture or food, says Coveney.

Spare us, above all, the rationalising. The need to exercise “caution”, as Mr Deenihan says.

Better to come clean and say, “listen, I need to mind my seat and that means minding my industry”.

How can anyone argue that drinks companies sponsor events for any other reason than to sell drink?

The Guinness Cork Jazz Festival has been a  ‘drink-a-thon ’ since its inception. Other prominent drinks sponsorships are more subtle. When Jameson sponsors the Dublin Film Festival, they associate whiskey with youth and sex and high art and high fashion.

The Absolut Fringe Festival is cooler still, linking bohemianism with long, pale drinks on lots of ice.

I am here, desperately trying to get my kids involved in culture. Spending hundreds of euro on piano lessons. Bringing my kids to the theatre.

If all my work means they go to a cultural event because they want to go, they ’re given the message, loud and clear, that they should also be drinking.

I spent many years managing arts coverage for a national newspaper. But I ’m saying it now  — better not to have any of these festivals than for them to be sponsored by drink. Better not to have them and what Mr Deenihan calls their “significant economic returns”.

Remember that culture-vulture mammy? Well, here she is again, this time driving her children to camogie and Gaelic football and supporting her rugby-playing sons and paying, paying, paying for all of it.

What am I doing it for if, once I have got the message through that it ’s cool to be healthy and active and sociable, they get the message that it ’s cool to drink?

Better not to have the Heineken Cup and Guinness hurling All-Ireland senior championship. Could anything be more disgusting than the message that health, youth, courage and strength need alcohol to fuel them?

Like most parents, I ’m really trying here. But I ’ve seen the statistics: They start drinking at 14 and half of them have been drunk by the time they ’re 16.

This is such a good country in which to grow up, in so many ways. I want my kids to be engaged with Irish society. But I don ’t want them drunk. Or suicidal. Or violent. Or to die in an accident. Or to have meaningless, mindless sex with strangers.

Many of the other proposals in the national substance misuse strategy are important, such as the minimum-unit price, the separated sales area for drink, and the responsibility tax on the industry. But the ban on sponsorship is the big one. That ’s why it ’s causing the most trouble.

So, do your job. Do your job, even if it means losing your seat. Not just our society, but our entire planet, is in jeopardy for want of politicians prepared to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences are for themselves.

I don ’t want lines of soldiers and solemn handshakes in 2016. I want the separation of State and drink. I want an Ireland that is deeply cultured and sports-mad, but does not thrust a pint of plain into the hands of visiting dignitaries.

I want an Ireland that does not celebrate Arthur ’s Day, a day on which culture actually sponsors drink.

Do it, Roisin. Let her at it, boys. What a legacy that would be for you all.

I might even get to keep those four little branches on our family tree from being hacked off while they ’re still green.