Tuesday 28 January 2020

Backchat: Liam Fay - Unpalatable truths of inequality

Paschal Donohoe

Liam Fay

The full Irish breakfast was once regarded as the cornerstone of the Irish diet: hefty, dependable and easier to gnaw than chew. Pigging out on pig first thing in the morning was supposed to be a benchmark expression of the national character, as indispensable to our tribal identity as the pounding hangover for which it was frequently prescribed as the most effective cure.

Last week, however, the cloche was lifted on what some traditionalists will see as an unpalatable fact: growing numbers of Irish people are turning their noses up at the fry and sinking their teeth into healthier options.

Details of this remarkable belly-flip were provided by the Jury's Hotel group which analysed dining choices among the one million people to whom it has served breakfast so far this year. It turns out that British guests eat almost twice as many rashers, sausages and fried eggs as their Irish counterparts. Meanwhile, Irish guests eat five times more muesli and bran flakes than anybody else. Our erstwhile devotion to the heart attack on a plate has, apparently, been replaced by an avid fondness for the colon cleanser in a bowl.

Unscientific it may be, but the Jury's research chimes with an assortment of empirical indicators from a variety of sources, all of which suggest that the Irish population is becoming more health-conscious. It's a phenomenon that appears to defy conventional wisdom. After all, we live in an age when we are routinely assailed by alarming headlines about rising rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Barely a day passes without another bout of media brow-mopping about the speed with which we are smoking, drinking, munching and/or lazing ourselves into early graves.

So how can we also be living in an age when more people are leading healthier lives than ever before? The short answer is: inequality. Ours is a deeply divided society, so we should not be surprised to find that our lifestyle trends are characterised by apparent contradictions.

Improvements in the nation's diet haven't come about because of changes in human nature or the substances that tantalise our appetites. Sugar is still sweet, fatty food hasn't grown any less tasty and booze retains its quasi-miraculous power to slake thirst, drown sorrows and instigate romance.

What has changed, and changed dramatically, is the depth and breadth of public knowledge about the long-term physical costs which accrue from overindulgence in unhealthy activities. More and more members of the populace have wised up to an inescapable fact of life: old habits die hard but those who fail to kick old habits die harder and sooner.

When I say 'populace', however, what I actually mean is 'middle-class populace'. Good news about Ireland's health is very postcode specific. While the better-off are getting healthier, the disadvantaged remain stuck in a cycle of risky behaviour which increases their chances of developing a range of serious illnesses.

The decisive role played in public health by economic conditions is a subject about which we hear precious little from our political leaders. It is estimated that around 80pc of the factors that influence physical wellbeing have nothing to do with metabolism. Social background and environmental circumstances - most notably, educational attainment and employment status - are actually the most crucial determinants of healthiness. The health consequences of economic disparities are especially stark when it comes to mortality rates. Put simply, poor people die younger. They also die more often from lifestyle-related diseases.

Authoritative Irish research into the class divide within the nation's health is shamefully sparse. However, a 2012 UK study - by a public health think-tank drawing on NHS statistics - provides some relevant signposts. The British researchers found that people with no educational qualifications were more than five times as likely as those with degrees to engage in four key damaging behaviours: smoking, excess alcohol use, poor diet and sedentary lifestyles. Moreover, the study also found that the behavioural gap is widening. The middle class is getting healthier while the underprivileged are getting sicker.

Since taking office, new Health Minister Leo Varadkar has been garlanded with plaudits for his refreshingly blunt candour, most of which are justified. One of his most acclaimed performances was an RTE interview in which he stressed the importance of personal responsibility in relation to efforts to tackle the obesity crisis. "The Government can't make you thin," Varadkar declared.

Strictly-speaking, he's right. There are limits to how far the State can or should go in controlling the diet of its citizens. Personal responsibility is crucial, and is clearly the driving force behind the newfound health consciousness of much of the population. Nevertheless, it would be foolhardy to assume that the defining problem of the unhealthy poor is a lack of willpower or self-discipline. The Government can't make you thin but it can exacerbate the conditions that make you fat.

Over coming months, it will be interesting to see whether Varadkar's famed plain-speaking will extend to active acknowledgement of the links between economic deprivation and ill health.

Ultimately, after all, any further attempt to alleviate the nation's lifestyle maladies and addictions without attending to the issue of inequality would be as futile as trying to rustle up a full Irish without a frying pan.

Celebrities' dead Cert

As another generation of school-leavers ponders its career options, inordinate attention has again been squandered on the promotion of dead-end jobs in medicine, law and IT while nobody advocates the merits of the only occupation that actually matters nowadays: "raising awareness".

Here, then, is the careers' guidance you won't hear anywhere else. Awareness Raising (AR) is highly specialised work and should never be confused with menial labour like "generating debate" or "discussing ideas". Before you can qualify to become an AR practitioner, it's essential to attain a measure of celebrity, preferably in pop singing or reality TV. Having distinguished yourself in either discipline, you will be perfectly placed to exhort the unobservant masses to wake up and smell the coffee.

Examples of the AR industry's achievements are legion but its most dedicated exponents have excelled themselves during the latest Gaza conflagration. Without breathless updates from the likes of Rihanna and Selena Gomez on Twitter or Instagram - ideal platforms for opining about Middle Eastern affairs - most of us would have no idea what's going on over there or how unpleasant it is.

So far, most Irish celebs have refrained from direct engagement in the brokering of Israeli-Palestinian peace. As is traditional, however, hordes of minor showbiz luminaries have been making their presence felt throughout media coverage of the Leaving Cert results ritual. More often than not, the selfless VIPs have used the opportunity to outline the many ways in which they have done spectacularly well for themselves despite their modest academic accomplishments.

To unsophisticated ears, many of these contributions might sound like shameless bragging. For those of us who understand the intricacies of AR, however, it is an inspiration to witness skilled professionals operating at the top of their game.

Paschal Donohoe has been gadding about in silly costumes again

A few weeks ago, the tourism minister promoted a country music festival by dressing up as a cowboy. Last week, Donohoe opted for an even more incongruous rig-out: he delivered a speech about patriotism at the Parnell Summer School in which he effectively wrapped himself in the green flag.

Apparently, Donohoe regards himself as an authority on citizenship. This is a truly fascinating hobby for a member of a government that has helped redefine the relationship between the State and the people, stiffing ordinary citizens with the bill for an economic bust caused by a rich elite.

Donohoe is also a loyal servant of Fine Gael, home of John Bruton - the lavishly pensioned former Taoiseach who sneers at irrational peasants who blame bankers for the banking crisis.

All things considered, Donohoe would look marginally less ridiculous if he put the Stetson back on.

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