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Friday 18 January 2019

Do ministers get drunk on power or just plain drunk?

Liam Collins

Liam Collins

POLITICS and drink are like good companions, they go together like . . . gin and tonic or whiskey and water. But like all good companions they can easily end up on the rocks.

When the British Liberal Democrats leader Charles Kennedy revealed that he has spent the last 18 months "coming to terms with, and seeking to cope with, a drinking problem", he was articulating one of the great hazards of political life.

Kennedy, who resigned as party leader yesterday, found himself on the wrong side of the divide, just like many an Irish politician. By admitting to a drink problem, he finished his leadership.

The bars in Leinster House have long been a haven for rollicking good humour, a fund of anecdotes and many quotable quotes. But many politicians rue the day they got involved in the convivial company of backbenchers, reporters and other hangers-on who while away the waiting hours between votes and deadlines with drink.

Great politicians like Donogh O'Malley, the Fianna Fail minister who brought in free education, and David Thornley, one of the Labour Party's brightest of his day, drank themselves into early graves.

Others, like former Taoiseach Charles Haughey and former Tanaiste Brian Lenihan were well known in the bar of the Russell Hotel, where they liked to mix business and pleasure. Brian Lenihan, one of the brightest of good companions, eventually had a liver transplant but, like George Best, he died an early death.

Charlie McCreevy, who enjoyed many a wild session when he was a backbencher, used to remark ruefully, that when he entered politics TDs used to congregate to drink in the late morning, and were held in high public esteem. But with the work ethic of the Nineties, if they even met for coffee their standing in the public eye would falldramatically.

McCreevy had the good sense to give up alcohol once he was appointed Minister for Finance, and remained off it until he moved to Brussels. But as a result he wasn't very popular with some of his old drinking buddies.

The thing about drink is that it transcends all barriers. Politicians of different persuasions can be found sitting in the bar a few minutes after a poisonous political encounter, sharing a drink.

The much talked about 'Bar Lobby' in Leinster House - a group of TDs, mostly backbenchers - was always made up of people from different parties who enjoyed gambling, drink and conversation; and not necessarily in that order.

Maybe if they could confine it to Leinster House life would be easier. But for a politician that is largely impossible. Irish life revolves around drink - whether it be baptisms, communions, weddings or funerals. So politicians merely reflect what is going on in Irish society.

There are groups of constituents who have to be met in the bar of Buswell's Hotel. Many country politicians spend three nights a week in a hotel, so there is a natural temptation to remain on in the bar. They hold their clinics in pubs. They have to attend funerals and functions, and it is almost obligatory that they partake of a drink.

Bertie Ahern opens pubs, Mary Harney off-licences. Many ministers spend much of their time on licensed premises attending functions of one sort or another.

Anyone who has seen journalists at a good lunch or reception, or at the bar, will be aware that when it comes to drinking the Fourth Estate would give the political classes a good run for their money.

The difference is that most journalists keep reasonably regular hours, while most politicians don't.

Despite the general public perception that TDs have a cushy life, they spend almost all their waking hours on duty. People want to buy politicians and sports stars drink, it's an automatic reaction. But it also brings the recipients, the politicians, a lot closer to alcoholism.

When they say No people are often suspicious.

Alcohol and power are not mutually exclusive. It's when it reaches the stage that someone "can't hold their drink", that it become a problem and an embarrassment.

The former Minister for Tourism Jim McDaid has long had to battle with alcoholism. When he went back on the drink and drove the wrong way up the Naas dual carriageway in an alcoholic haze after a long lunch at Punchestown Races he had to quit as a Minister of State.

"I have taken more out of drink than drink has taken out of me," said Winston Churchill, who drank his way steadily through the Second World War, and several governments.

George Brown, the British Labour politician and Reggie Maudling the Conservative were two serious drinkers. Maudling, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would order "a stiff gin and tonic," within seconds of his flight for home taking off from Belfast.

The late Jeffrey Bernard who devoted his lifetime to drinking in Soho and other dens enjoyed telling the story of drinking after hours in the Horseshoe Bar in The Shelbourne Hotel after Derby Day at the Curragh. He found himself in convivial company talking about horses with a group of men. After a time he said to the man beside him "and what to you do" to which Charles Haughey replied: "I'm the Minister for Finance."

But Mr Haughey, despite his reputation, was more interested in the quality of the drink, rather than they quantity. He enjoyed fine wines but never let it get in the way of his work.

He rarely drank in the Dail Bar, but even when he was dining out in a fancy restaurant he would frequently leave after the main course to go back to work.

The Fine Gael Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan, a publican himself, ruined his own political career when he called the President of Ireland, Cearball O Dalaigh, a "thundering disgrace", after a convivial lunch in Mullingar Army barracks.

There was also a politician who escaped a drink-driving rap after he claimed Dail privilege. Although he was stopped at 11 o'clock at night, he claimed he was on the way to the Dail and so was immune from prosecution. He won his case but the technicality has not been used since.

On another level total abstinence from drink can be a great bonus for a politician, provided they can put up with drunks. Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who now enjoys an odd glass of wine, was a Pioneer for most of his political life. But he was always the last man standing at a function - and unlike many of his loquacious companions, he remembered everything that went on the night before.

But the pitfalls of not having a drink were illustrated by the great storyteller Paddy Lindsay, when he was going up to the park with the Taoiseach to hand in their seals of office. Their State car was stalled outside Ryan's of Parkgate Street and Taoiseach John A Costello said: "I've never stood in a pub in my life." To which Lindsay replied: "That's why we're going up to hand in our seals and the other crowd are getting into power."

Work is the curse of the drinking classes, said Oscar Wilde, but many politicians combine the two. Drinking is part of the culture of politics, but like most pleasurable activities it needs to be handled with a certain delicacy.

Of course Bertie Ahern, the consummate politician, has found the perfect solution. He enjoys his pint in local pubs around his constituency, but he opts for enforced abstinance for the 40 days of Lent and the 30 of November. Anyone who can do that couldn't possibly have a drink problem, could they?

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