The pub, the craic - drinking is part of the culture. But it's time Ireland counted the cost
The Irish are more associated with alcohol than most other nations and their fondness for drink is the butt of countless jokes.
Tourist advertisements encouraging visitors to Ireland almost always figure a pint or two as part of the campaign. A country with such a reputation, one might expect, would have the most liberal of laws for the consumption of alcohol. Yet while on one side of the Irish Sea, England and Wales are about to encourage "civilised" drinking by relaxing licensing laws, Ireland prepares to introduce an even more draconian regime.
Ireland has a love-hate relationship with alcohol. The Irish enjoy a reputation for cordiality: pub culture is the centre of social life and, according to some reports, per capita alcohol consumption is one of the highest in Europe. On the other hand, up to 25 per cent of cases in accident and emergency units in Irish hospitals are alcohol-related, and assaults related to drinking have increased dramatically in recent years. The Irish president, Mary McAleese, recently described the Irish attitude to drink as "unhealthy" and "sinister".
In 2000 there were almost 15,000 reported cases of public intoxication and a similar number for abusive or insulting behaviour. In an attempt to stem the huge growth of these offences, the government updated the Intoxicating Liquor Act that year. The hope was that if opening hours were extended and the drinking regime liberalised, people would moderate consumption. The government underestimated the strength of Ireland's alcohol culture.
Consumption increased, as did incidences of violent behaviour. A commission was set up to look into the problem, taking submissions from all sectors related to the drinks industry.
In February the Commission on Liquor Licensing produced its final report, making a number of recommendations that the government has said it intends to implement. The legal age of consumption will remain 18 but endemic under-age drinking will be tackled by requiring everyone under 21 to show proof of their age on licensed premises; under-15s will be banned from pubs after 8pm. The ID requirement is intended to catch out older-looking 16-year-olds. The government will also back-pedal on provisions in the 2000 act that allowed premises to remain open until 12.30am on Thursdays (in addition to Fridays and Saturdays). Alcohol abuse is thought to cost the Irish economy up to two billion euros in lost productivity, due in part, the government believes, to people drinking on those late Thursday nights.
Some of the proposals, such as allowing plain-clothes police on to premises to enforce drinks legislation, have been more controversial and angered the Vintners' Federation of Ireland.
The law that publicans cannot serve people who are "drunk" has been all but unenforceable. Previously, small fines could be levied but now the Irish minister for justice, Michael McDowell, believes pubs should "face closure if they serve drink to the point where they are turning people out on the street plastered".
But, as one publican from County Wexford asked on Irish radio: at what point is he responsible for "the person who gets quietly plastered and 'out of their tree' "?
Another controversial measure is that police may start recording customers on video camera as they leave premises, using the tapes as evidence if people are subsequently charged for being drunk. With 40 per cent of fatal road accidents being drink-related and an average of 25 alcohol-spurred assaults per night, the government sees such enforcement as the solution.
Not everyone agrees. They believe a sea change is required in the mentality of Irish people with regard to the "demon drink". Patricia McKenna, a Green Party MEP, believes education is the answer: "In Mediterranean countries young people have access to alcohol from a very early age. In the European Parliament, I never see Mediterraneans sloshed and out of their minds. Unfortunately, closer to home, I do see it."
Others believe an outright ban on alcohol advertising is the answer. The drinks industry heavily promotes some Gaelic games, and though a voluntary ban operates on the national television station, drinking is heavily promoted in other media.
The Irish government has to strike a balance between a national alcohol strategy and the proper enforcement of current legislation if we are to see a more mature attitude in Ireland towards consumption. Unfortunately the benefits of any such strategy could take a generation to manifest themselves, and few governments can commit to such a long-term strategy. Meanwhile Ireland will continue to find answers to its problems at the bottom of a glass.