Mixed signals on alcohol deserve red card

  • Post category:News

SO a man walks into a hotel bar to celebrate a wedding and everything goes enjoyably until he does what he knows he shouldn’t and takes a drink.

From the Irish Examiner

As the evening progresses, he grows increasingly erratic so that by three in the morning, he’s trying to break into cars parked outside, roaring aggressively into the night air, abusing the hotel staff who try to calm him and needing to have gardaí called to deal with him.

It happens all the time, at every hotel, pub and nightclub in the country. It’s just another pain in the backside drunk who can spoil an occasion in a swallow, disturb everyone within shouting distance, take up garda time and ask more than anyone has a right to of mainly minimum wage workers who just want to clean up and go home.

Except that on the occasion in question, the pain in the backside was a national hero and a man for whom there appears to be limitless public reserves of affection, sympathy and goodwill.

This was not lost on the judge at Tullamore District Court before whom Paul McGrath appeared a few weeks ago on public order charges relating to the incident.

A fine and prison sentence were options available to the judge but instead he ordered the former Republic of Ireland international to give a day’s coaching to the children of Tullamore Town Football Club.

It’s hard to be critical of anyone involved in the saga. Not Paul McGrath, a man of depth, warmth and endless good intentions whose autobiography is unflinchingly honest about his alcoholism and recounts his failings without self-pity or blame.

Not the judge who was trying to find a humane and useful response to a case involving a man who is arguably already in his own personal prison, chained to the dead weight of drink.

Not the volunteers who run Tullamore Town FC and graciously accepted the opportunity to have a living legend put the club’s kids through their paces.

Yet something doesn’t feel right about the outcome of this case, especially when you look at it from a child’s perspective.

Question: “Why is the famous man coaching us, daddy?” The truth: “Because he’s been bold and the judge said he had to” is not the kind of reply child development experts would recommend for nurturing juvenile self-esteem.

The lie: “Because he thinks you’re great and wants to help you be brilliant footballers” might work up to a certain age although even a four-year-old is fitted with a sharply-honed fib-detector that is particularly adept at spotting parental porkies.

But for older children, there’s no point in even trying to fudge the issue. They don’t need you ”” they’ve got Google.

So what does it say to them that a day in their company is considered punishment for breaking the law, that they are a chore that must be completed, an unpleasant consequence that must be faced?

A thesis on sentencing policy might be introduced at this point to explain that punishment is not the only guiding principle behind court orders which can equally focus on rehabilitation and making amends. But that would only invite the question of whether the choice of principle in this case was guided by the fact that the defendant is famous and celebrity makes for a better class of alcoholic.

Shoot that proposition down and you’re left with the conclusion that all who do battle with drink and leave a pile of collateral damage in their wake deserve a light touch from the law.

But what message does that give to children who may be living with alcoholism, tip-toeing daily around the ticking time-bomb that is a parent who is more often than not drunk, hungover or in the horrors of withdrawal?

How does it recognise the strain of living in dread of the next row, the next disappearing act, the next squandered pay cheque, the next fumbled attempt at affection to which the child must respond enthusiastically no matter how bruised, confused or angry they feel?

How is that child ever to feel that they matter, that they can trust their own judgment that what they’re experiencing is wrong, that they can speak out or demand that things change?

These are questions far bigger than one judge, one retired footballer and one local sports club should have to answer but the Tullamore case does illustrate some of the difficulties we have in dealing with the subject of alcohol abuse.

The district courts last year dealt with almost 50,000 cases of public order offences and minor assaults, the majority of which, it’s safe to say, were committed under the influence of drink.

Judges usually impose fines, require payment of compensation, order attendance at alcohol awareness courses or strongly suggest a spell in detox.

Some try to be more inventive ”” confessional essay writing was the favourite of one now retired midlands judge and kids soccer coaching is another option. But none of this has any real impact as punishment, deterrent, rehabilitation or otherwise.

But then the courts are influenced by society and Irish society has a complicated and often contradictory relationship with alcohol.

Research published by the National Consumer Agency this week showed cash-strapped supermarket shoppers increasingly abandoning branded products for cheaper own-brand goods.

Even well-known, long-trusted brands of food items and baby products are rapidly losing ground to own brand alternatives.

But the shift is slowest when it comes to beer where label loyalty is considered worth paying extra for. Well, even in a recession you have to get your priorities right.

Next week will see the annual panic over the Leaving Cert results celebrations when thousands of teenagers will take to the streets in (and out of) their underwear to party like it’s the end of the world rather than the start of a whole new one.

The reality is that the majority will not be making their drinking debut next Wednesday night but will have been boozing for the previous few years and will have managed to get to the end of their schooldays and the start of adulthood without learning how to do it with self-respect, safety or moderation.

But then many of their parents will have celebrated the feats of Paul McGrath at the Euros in ’88, Italia ’90 and USA ’94 in a manner that left their heads as tender as McGrath’s knees. They may lack a certain credibility when it comes to encouraging their offspring to have a healthier attitude towards drink and giving them the confidence to say “no” or at least “no more”.

Confidence comes from self-esteem, which participation in sports is widely regarded to boost, so the confusing messages that come from mixing up the simple pleasures of children’s sport with the complicated issues of an adult’s addiction is unfortunate.

Paul McGrath hasn’t been back to Tullamore yet to fulfill the judge’s order but when he does, perhaps he could stretch his time there to two days ”” one for the courts and one for the kids.

It would make truth out of a lie and prove that he can still produce magic on a pitch.