Reviving the local pub for family and communityImage

The latest initiative from the Irish Vintners Federation is an ingenious one. This is the proposal that parents should bring their older teenagers to the pub to get them used to drinking as a leisurely social activity done to a moderate level and not some ‘get out of your head’ lark done quickly in a friend’s house or in the local fields, where there’s no closing time and no burly barman saying ‘I think you’ve had enough.’ It is an ingenious idea because it combines a concern with combating teenage binge drinking with the equal concern of getting customers back into the pubs. And as the banks used to say when they were encouraging students to open accounts, if you get them early, you’ll have them for life: a customer base with long term potential as opposed to the ‘old man’ demographic that is so often the mainstay of the pubs now.

So it’s a clever proposal, combining a concern with the health of our young people with the more mercantile, and entirely legitimate, aim of boosting business. No wonder it has drawn the approval of Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, no puritan on these matters and presumably one who tolerates social imbibing in the responsible European manner. It has also drawn the approval of the wonderfully named Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society (MEAS) group although their support was surprisingly qualified, and dependant on bar staff showing ‘responsible serving practises.’ Talk about ‘blurring the message’, if you’ll excuse the pun. How could a distracted barman be less responsible than a cackling fellow teen pouring vodka down your throat?

Interestingly, the proposal comes from the Kerry branch of the Vintners Federation. The last time a pub-boosting proposal came from that region it was the appeal from Micheal Healy Rae’s that customers be allowed to drive home, in isolated areas, after more than the current drink limit which is actually (dare I say it) very low. The proposal drew outrage by many and was even ridiculed on TV in Germany where there is a zero tolerance for any driving with alcohol, just as there is for inflation, unnecessary laughter and countries ‘leaving’ the Euro.

And this is the problem with discussion about alcohol now: it brings out exaggerated talk from all quarters. Just look at the recent debate on sports sponsorship by drinks companies. The reality is that we do have an unhealthy association with alcohol in Ireland going back years and even centuries, and yes, alcohol has been a social and psychological crutch which has led to serious problems. But that is the dark side to our legitimate celebration of alcohol, as part of our entertainment culture and our very genuine sense of fun, which other countries can only envy. It is the backbone of our tourist trade and yet we wince when we hear celebrities talking about the ‘crazy time’ (ie drunken) they had in Ireland. But at least we see that contradiction now and are facing up to it.

But the debate also ignores the fact that the vast majority of Irish people, or any people, enjoy alcohol moderately or even liberally without having a problem about it. So it is unfair to punish everybody for the genuine problems of a minority. Addiction comes in many forms. Likewise, it is unfair to suggest raising the price of alcohol in off licences because young people can binge drink on it. This is using a sledgehammer which affects all drinkers, especially unfair during a time of recession.

For the reality is that pub alcohol is just too expensive in these cash-strapped times, and this is where the Vintners have got it wrong. There’s no point moaning about the smoking ban and the driving ban when your prices are still at Celtic Tiger levels. No wonder people drink at home. That’s market economics with which one has to compete and yet most bars refuse to cut prices or reinvent the old pub formula.

And yet the Vintner’s idea is a good one. It will educate moderation, and I know that when I began imbibing some of the best moments was with my parents in pubs. Father and son having a pint: that’s hard to beat. And the idea is important is another respect, which is helping the bar trade in rural Ireland where the pub has long been a crucial part of the community. The pub was where locals went to meet their neighbours and trash out ideas and gossip, instead of staying inside their houses watching American TV and having a solitary tipple. So if this proposal did something to help arrest that serious social decline, then I’ll raise a glass.