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Alison O’Connor: When it comes to drink, we need saving from ourselves

It's Sisyphus that comes to mind when listening to junior minister Roisin Shortall speak of how she is going to try and reduce alcohol consumption levels among the Irish.

If you're a little shaky on your Greek mythology, poor ol' Sisyphus was a king punished by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down again, and to repeat this process throughout eternity.

It's really a terrible pity that this is the case because if there was one immensely positive thing any politician could do to improve Irish society it would be to cut our drinking levels.

Roisin is a bright woman, and sounds very sincere in her efforts, but one can't help but conclude that she is destined to abject failure. Let's face it, as a nation we are hopeless when it comes to drink. If we were left without any receptacles at all with which to consume our alcohol, we would, as the saying goes, drink it out of an oul shoe, no matter what the price charged.

Irish people have such an extraordinary blind spot about how much we drink. You'd lose count of the number of adults who give out about the level of consumption among the "younger generation"; those same people seem to think it completely irrelevant that those same children spent their childhoods watching their parents drinking with gay abandon.

It was a central part of everything from their christening all the way up through the sacraments, and any other celebration that happened along.

The thing is that we see "the drink" as an intrinsic part of who and what we are. We're suspicious of people who don't drink, and even of those who drink in moderation. It's as if someone is a bit of a killjoy if they don't keep up with the round, or that they are slyly keeping watch as everyone else is getting trollied. If you happen to be a man who doesn't drink you are regarded with particular suspicion; a bit of a mystery, as well as a bit of a ponce. You're "allowed" to be teetotal (temporarily) if pregnant or on antibiotics, but even then could find yourself pressed to have "just the one".

We are well able to speak in the abstract about the damage that alcohol causes and how, in families where someone suffers from a "problem", it's agreed that spouses and children can suffer appallingly. But we never seem to look at how the overall societal attitude may fit into all of this. When it comes to the 'cause' and 'effect' part we have some sort of a convenient lack of cultural folk memory.

I heard a story recently of a man who died young from alcohol abuse. After the funeral many of his friends gathered in the same pub where he did most of the damage to his liver, which was what eventually led to his death. The gang remained there drinking until late in the night, the irony lost on them. Who among us might not end up doing exactly the same thing, given the same circumstances?

All of this does not mean that Roisin Shortall's endeavour is not an honourable and entirely necessary one and that she should not persist. Her first plan is to try and introduce a minimum pricing policy for alcohol sold in shops and supermarkets.

But after that she had better be ready to re-introduce the 'holy hour', and early closing, outlaw happy hours, restrict the serving of alcohol to people over, say, 55, -- only maybe three units a night per person -- and issue a ban on the bootloads of cheap booze that come over the Border from Northern supermarkets at Christmas.

Seriously though, it's well past time that we had a politician who treated this problem as it needs to be treated. Whatever about the effect it has on our psyches and our family lives, the health damage is costing us €4bn a year.

The junior health minister is absolutely right in saying that so much of what is wrong is down to price and availability. Alcohol in Ireland is in your face at almost all times, whether it's at the supermarket or the filling station -- and it can be bought, as medical experts have described it, at "pocket money prices". There is a mountain of evidence which links cheap drink and levels of harm.

Ms Shortall has got to stress that those with problems are not just the ones with the drink-related barring orders, the bottles of vodka hidden in the cistern or the winos on the street corner.

It's not just the teenagers going crazy on alcopops that she needs to target, but the you and the me who prefer not to think about what is outside the norm -- the mothers who sit down at night after putting the kids to bed and who, before they know it, have packed away the best part of a bottle of wine, or the older men whose day is not complete without at least a few pints in the pub at night with buddies, followed by one or two "chasers".

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron is taking a lead on the issue and is reported to have told his officials to draw up plans for a minimum price for alcohol sales in England. This follows plans in Scotland to ban the sale of alcohol in shops and supermarkets at below 45p per unit.

No matter how liberal your outlook is ordinarily, or how pro-deregulation you tend to be, drink is one area of Irish life in which we need to be saved from ourselves.

If Roisin Shortall does manage to have a little more success than Sisyphus, it would be a fine legacy.

Irish Independent