independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

We need to take a line on drink

This Government never tires of trying to thrust a pint of Guinness into the hand of every notable dignitary that comes to town

The Irish Times

Consistency is something you don’t always associate with politicians, particularly in Ireland. They can blow in the wind to reflect the mood of the day.

The gnashing of teeth this week about Arthur’s Day is a case in point.

In The Irish Times yesterday, my colleague Kitty Holland reported the views of Alex White, the Minister of State with responsibility for alcohol and drugs, on Arthur’s Day, the now annual celebration of Arthur Guinness’s birth by the international beer and spirits group Diageo.

White said Arthur’s Day was “contrived”.

“There is a serious problem, not only with the amount of alcohol we drink, but also with the harmful patterns in which it is consumed,” White said.

“Our accident and emergency departments, our Garda stations and the streets of our cities and towns are in the front line of public drunkenness and alcohol-related harm.

“It seems to me that Diageo has invented Arthur’s Day as a pseudo- national holiday for the purposes of marketing its products – especially to young people – thereby stimulating greater consumption of alcohol.”

The Minister of State makes some good points and, in that context, it seems reasonable that alcohol sales are subject to stiff taxes and excise duties, much of which – presumably – are used to pay the costs of dealing with alcohol abuse. This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that this Government, of which White is a member, never tires of trying to thrust a pint of Guinness into the hand of every notable dignitary that comes to town.

Who didn’t wince at the sight of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip being traipsed around the Guinness Storehouse on their historic visit here in 2011?

It was unedifying.

The queen showed just the right amount of disinterest in the pint of Guinness that was carefully pulled for her by a Storehouse staff member while Prince Philip playfully sniffed at it before wandering off, much to the amusement of the media snappers.

’Contrived’ event
The current Fine Gael-Labour coalition had no problem hitching its wagon to Diageo for that “contrived” event.

And don’t let anyone convince you that this was all about taking them to the Gravity Bar for a superior aerial view of Dublin because it was nothing of the sort.

That same year US president Barack Obama then blew into town. He had no sooner landed in Moneygall, Co Offaly, than a pint of stout was thrust into his hand in Hayes bar.

The president was a good sport, raising his glass to the cameras before taking a healthy gulp of the black stuff and remarking how much nicer the pint of Guinness is here compared with in the United States.

As if that wasn’t enough, his wife Michelle was taken around the bar and shown how to pull the perfect pint.

The narrative at the time was that the visits of the queen and Mr Obama would resonate with tens of millions of people around the world and send out a positive picture of Ireland at a time when our reputation was in the toilet because of the financial crash here.

If nothing else, people abroad might be curious about this land of stout and book a holiday here.

These aren’t the first dignitaries to Ireland to be subjected to the “Mine’s-a-pint” routine. Former US president Bill Clinton got the same treatment, as did former British prime minister John Major and many more besides.

Irish pubs are also used as a tool to sell Ireland to international visitors by the State. On the Discover Ireland website run by Tourism Ireland, there’s a section called “pop into an Irish pub”.

Instant tutorial
“Prop yourself up at . . . Dublin’s Messrs Maguire, and you can get an instant tutorial in microbrewing,” the website boasts.

The Guinness Storehouse is number eight of 54 museums and attractions listed on the same site. “You simply cannot leave Dublin without having paid a visit,” is Tourism Ireland’s advice.

This is clearly resonating with visitors to the our fair isle because the Storehouse was the number one paid attraction in Ireland last year with more than 1 million people passing through its doors. More than 90 per cent of those people were from abroad.

Ministers were also happy to slap Diageo on the back when it announced its investment plans for the St James’s Gate brewery in Dublin.

The Government needs to get its message straight when it comes to alcohol consumption.

Otherwise, ministers leave themselves open to the charge of simply jumping on the bandwagon to make it look as if they are in sync with public opinion.