John Greene: If it must be done, it must be done right

  • Post category:News

It is inevitable that alcohol sponsorship in sport will eventually be banned. But the latest ham-fisted attempt to do away with it shows Irish politics up for what it is, a mixture of egos and vested interests muddling its way from one fine mess to another.


At least to be fair to the Labour Party, the mask has been removed. Those enthralled by sports events sponsored by drinks companies need to be protected from themselves because they know no better; those attending festivals and cultural events can go on as before because it makes no odds to these more educated types. Perhaps they don’t inhale.

What other conclusion are we to draw from the proposal to ban sponsorship of sporting events by drinks companies, but not other artistic or cultural events? Even Róisín Shortall, who until last year was a member of the Labour Party and who is an ardent supporter of a full ban of sponsorship and marketing by drinks companies, admitted on Vincent Browne’s TV show last week that she presumed the watering down of the proposal was “a compromise”. Indeed. It is a compromise which tells us a lot about her former party‘s attitude to Ireland. And shows just how out of touch it is – because it’s pretty much the same cross-section of people who attend all these events, sporting and otherwise.

No one can deny that this country’s relationship with alcohol is a serious problem, but the focus on this one issue is affording it undue weight. The unbalanced nature of the debate is also a worry. There is a valid argument against the ban being made by the sports organisations but unfortunately it is being drowned out by the emotive language of the pro lobby. (For instance, the word ‘grooming’, with its terrible connotations, has been used to describe what beverage companies are doing.) The sports organisations say money received from the drinks companies is put to good use. It is impossible to properly weigh the full benefits of this money – reckoned to be somewhere in the order of €30m a year – but we know if it is just cut off the effect it will have on the ability of sports organisations to cater for grassroots participation will be severely damaging.

In all the arguments about the harm that drink does in our society, two key points in relation to its involvement in sport are continually overlooked because they do not suit the absolute stance taken by those in favour of a ban.

Firstly, the country’s sporting organisations, and in particular the big three of the GAA, IRFU and FAI, have direct access to a majority of the country’s youth and all three have policies on alcohol use and misuse which form a key part of their work with these young people; and, secondly, our sporting icons, for the most part, actively promote a clean living and healthy lifestyle, including abstinence from alcohol.

We know the traditional pub trade in Ireland has declined and that a lot of drinking now takes place in other settings, mostly the home, and nothing normalises alcohol use more in the eyes of young people than making it part of their everyday home life.

There is nothing wrong with the ambition to ultimately remove alcohol sponsorship of sporting events – and also festivals and cultural events – but it needs to be done as part of a coherent and workable strategy. The first thing that needs to happen if the State is serious about tackling the problem of alcohol misuse has to be in implementing all the laws that are currently in place.

It’s worth looking at the ‘Alcohol and the Law’ section on the Citizens Information website to get a reminder of these.

In Ireland, you are not allowed to sell alcohol to any person under the age of 18. You are not allowed to buy alcohol for any person under the age of 18. You cannot buy alcohol if you are under 18. You cannot drink alcohol under the age of 18, except in a private residence and only then with permission from a parent. If you are under the age of 18 you cannot enter an off-licence unless with a parent or guardian. You cannot pretend to be over 18 if you are not. You cannot be in possession of fake ID. A publican cannot supply alcohol to a person deemed to be too drunk. You cannot engage in disorderly conduct in a pub, or in a public place for that matter. Children can only be in a pub if they are with a parent or guardian and not after 9.0pm (10.0pm from May to September). Pubs can no longer run ‘happy hours’. You cannot be drunk to the extent that you are a danger to yourself or others in a public place. And, of course, Ireland also has one of the lowest blood alcohol limits in the world for motorists.

And yet figures published by the Central Statistics Office show that public order offences peaked in 2008 and have fallen every year since, and that liquor licensing offences have fallen every year since 2007. Does this mean there is less public drunkenness and less flouting of the liquor licensing laws, or just less of a stomach to take these breaches on, especially given the decline in resources for frontline forces like the Gardaí?

And if you are going to quote France’s ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport as a standard bearer in this debate, as several did last week, then do not be selective. Because in France sporting organisations are viewed as instruments of public good, and are acknowledged as such by being adequately funded. The government here put €44m into sport this year, the drinks companies put in around €30m. It’s not the sporting organisations that need to be asking themselves hard questions.

It is simply not good enough to say – as Róisín Shortall and others did last week – that sport has been given fair warning to make other arrangements. This is a cop-out because the truth is the other options are just not there.

By all means ban alcohol sponsorship across the board. But do it as part of a long-term strategy that will work, and which includes replacing the funding, with State funds if needed, to fill the hole because €30m given to sport this year is far more than €30m saved in health costs down the road.