Minimum alcohol pricing can bring our long-suffering pubs back to life
MORE than 1,300 pubs have called last orders in the past decade in Ireland, but those in the industry believe the trade can be saved.
The smoking ban, tighter drink-driving laws and the massive increase in the availability of cheap supermarket drink has been sounding the death-knell for an institution so popular with visitors that we actually export the 'Irish Pub' to countries around the globe.
But as three bars continue to close every week, mostly in country areas, publicans say a fight-back is already under way.
"Most pubs, especially in rural areas, are facing significant challenges," said Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners' Federation of Ireland.
"The main factors affecting sustainability are lack of disposable income and the emigration of many of our younger generation.
"The situation is compounded when you consider that rural pubs serve smaller catchment areas and have access to very poor transport services. The impact of tighter drink-driving legislation is also acutely felt."
As the Government bids to push up tourist numbers, many visitors to the new coastal route along 'The Wild Atlantic Way' may find doors to pubs closed.
"The pub is still central to much of what happens in rural communities," said Mr Cribben.
"Our publicans are very much aware of the changing marketing opportunities and many are already embracing social media channels as a way of communicating with their customers.
"As other services like post offices, tourist offices etc, are being closed there will be a further reliance on pubs in many areas for essential services.
"Rural pubs need to recognise the niche they want to fill and fill it well into the future.
"Many are well on the road to doing that."
The owners of the British chain Wetherspoon believe there is a future for pubs in Ireland – they want to build or take over 30 of them, maybe even more. Towns across the country are on their target list, their chairman Tim Martin said.
Their first Irish pub will open in Blackrock, Dublin on July 7. A second bar is planned in Cork, but he says they operate in much smaller communities in Britain and plan to do so here .
"We are looking forward to opening our first pub in the Republic of Ireland and trust it will be the first of many," said the entrepreneur.
Meanwhile, civil servants are working on draft legislation which will put a minimum price on alcohol – a move that will benefit pubs.
The Vintners Federation, the off-licence trade and groups like Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI) all find themselves on the same side when it comes to minimum pricing as it will allow the off-licence trade and pubs to compete with supermarkets.
"Discounted alcohol is used as a draw to attract customers and has been sold at pocket-money prices in this country, particularly in supermarkets, for far too long now," says Conor Cullen from AAI.
"The cheapest booze is much cheaper than water in our supermarkets at the moment and this is a situation we need to address urgently as measures tackling the pricing, marketing and availability of alcohol are those which international evidence demonstrates will be effective in reducing alcohol-related harm in Ireland."
In British Columbia, Canada, a 10pc increase in the minimum price was associated with a 32pc fall in wholly alcohol related deaths.
Mr Cullen says a 10pc increase here would save more than 350 lives a year.
"However, it's important to note that minimum pricing is a very targeted measure and will not affect the price of alcoholic beverages in pubs, clubs and restaurants," he says.
"For this reason, minimum pricing has the support the Vintners Federation of Ireland and National Off-Licence Association of Ireland, whose members are suffering severe financial losses due to the prices that alcohol is being sold at in supermarkets.
"The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill has the potential to save lives and bring about a positive change in our harmful relationship with alcohol.
"It will also help to protect jobs in by far the largest employment areas of the alcohol industry, pubs and off-licences, which also generates the most tax revenue for the State," Mr Cullen added.
The Irish pub, it seems, may have another lifeline.