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Under their influence: FF 'gang' killed McDowell's cafe bar idea

NEARLY 70 ministers, TDs and senators "ganged up" on Justice Minister Michael McDowell to kill his controversial cafe bars plan, the Irish Independent has learned.

Fionnan Sheahan

Political Correspondent

NEARLY 70 ministers, TDs and senators "ganged up" on Justice Minister Michael McDowell to kill his controversial cafe bars plan, the Irish Independent has learned.

Members of the Dail and Senate sent 252 pages of correspondence to the minister outlining the opposition of publicans and anti-alcohol groups to his proposals aimed at curtailing binge drinking.

Agriculture Minister Mary Coughlan was particularly blatant in her objections. In a letter, written on Department of Agriculture notepaper, Ms Coughlan said that after meeting with vintners in her constituency, she believed there was "absolutely no support" for the cafe bars proposal.

The chairman of the Commission on Liquor Licensing, Gordon Holmes, said that self-interest and the influence of publicans over TDs had brought down the cafe bars plan.

"I would hope that sectoral interest would not overrule the public interest. On this occasion, I think it has," Mr Holmes said.

The episode casts doubt on the Government's commitment to dealing with the problems caused by alcohol abuse - including the carnage on our roads.

Arising out of a series of reports from two state-appointed bodies, some changes have been introduced, but where they have required confrontation with the drinks industry, the Government has backed down on a number of crucial occasions, including:

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* Plans to bring in new laws to protect children and adolescents from the effects of alcohol advertising were quietly dropped recently following a campaign of lobbying against them.

* A key recommendation of a report by the Strategic Task Force on Liquor Licensing was, instead, watered down to become a voluntary code of practice.

* The introduction of random breath testing was another crucial recommendation by the Task Force but so far the Government has shied away from it.

The u-turns recently sparked an accusation by the National Youth Federation that the Government was "effectively undermining" its own Task Force. "Is an alcohol strategy really worth much if the minute the industry speaks up and objects, you drop key recommendations?" asked Michael McLoughlin, a director of central services with the Youth Federation.

"It appears that the drinks industry is now in control of the agenda. Every time young people gather we are treated to lectures from politicians about drinking and bad behaviour - yet this is the Government's response."

The idea for the cafe bars came from the Commission on Liquor Licensing. The theory was that mixing food with drink would cut down on the level of binge drinking - a crucial influence on road accidents - and the growth of superpubs, which have been accused of causing public order problems. Publicans took particular issue with the idea.

There are just under 10,000 pub licences in the country but the distribution is far from even. Donegal, where Mary Coughlan lives, currently has a pub for every 270 people, while in Dublin there's a pub for every 1,380 people. For the publicans, the cafe bars would not only have created increased competition, they would have reduced the value of a pub licence.

The introduction of cafe bars effectively had the potential to burst the pub licence bubble and leave the publicans just like the taxi drivers when their market was deregulated.

In her letter to Michael McDowell, acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, Ms Coughlan disputed the whole value of the proposal. She claims she was just passing on the views of the vintners. "I recently met with our local vintners and a number of issues were raised which I feel we will have to discuss in due course," she wrote.

"Regarding a cafe bar, there is absolutely no support for it here locally. It cannot be policed, even existing licences are not policed and there does not seem to be any enthusiasm for same."

The presence within the Fianna Fail ranks of a half dozen TDs and senators who either are publicans themselves or have an interest in the pub trade doesn't help the claims that the party is impartial.

The party seems to take the view that it is members with a knowledge of, or interest in, pubs that are best equipped to deal with them.

Pub politicians

The Fianna Fail Minister in charge of alcohol policy, Junior Health Minister Sean Power is a publican.

Laois-Offaly TD John Moloney, the chairman of a group within the parliamentary party drawing up a submission for Michael McDowell on the licensing laws, owns a pub.

One of the sternest critics of the proposal was Carlow-Kilkenny TD, John McGuinness, who owns the property where his brother runs a pub. Eddie Bohan, a senator since 1987, is a former President of the VFI and a former chairman of the Dublin Licensed Vintners.

Vintners' access to the Government throws doubt on its ability to deal comprehensively with alcohol abuse.

Mr McDowell is to press ahead with the Intoxicating Liquor Bill to streamline licensing laws. It will be interesting to see how far it goes.

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