I start by reassuring you that in this piece about minimum unit pricing, I will not be using the words minimum unit pricing unless it is absolutely essential. It has become one of those euphemisms which are so inherently banal they distract from the issue they are meant to illustrate — which in this case can best be described as “cheap drink for poor people”.
We are talking here about slabs of cans, a “slab” being traditionally 24 in number, that used to cost about €20 in supermarkets until the new measures introduced last week brought it up to about €45. Slabs of cans, as the name and everything else about them suggest, have no attraction for those who can afford a chilled Sancerre, or a wildflower gin, or a very drinkable craft beer.
They may appeal to university students who are temporarily poor, and who will presumably respond to this recent setback simply by switching to drugs instead. But really what we’re talking about here is a policy aimed entirely at preventing poor people from getting drunk.
Given that our relationship with alcohol is the ultimate “societal issue”, the great leveller, I am bound to regard this as a debatable approach. Which may surprise regular readers, though of course there are as many nuances and complexities here as there are in the human soul itself.
On the face of it, the idea of making it more difficult for poor people to get drunk should not be a bad thing in itself. Yet I have written more on the subject of alcohol and other addictions than probably anyone else in this country or in most other countries, and at no point did I ever give much consideration to the price of drink for poor people. Or indeed for any other kind of people.
Now I’m not saying I’m completely right about this — again there seems to be a certain logic in denying some people at least the chance to do damage to themselves — but I think of the words of a recovering alcoholic of long-standing who put it like this: “I have sat in hundreds of AA meetings with thousands of alcoholics and not once, literally not one time, has anyone said that they went off it for a while because it had just become too expensive.”
Addiction, as we know, is cunning, baffling, powerful – and with this move against cheap drink for poor people we have truly arrived again in that mysterious zone in which logic somehow becomes too crude an instrument. After all, getting drunk on any income is not a very smart thing to do, yet we know that it becomes an entire way of life for some of the most intelligent people on earth.
There is something about this subject which confounds the usual playbooks of public health advisers — like the man who never heard anyone in AA saying they gave it up because it got too expensive, I have never known anyone to stop drinking after reading some HSE-type leaflet detailing the 20 ways in which you might “qualify” as a problem drinker.
At some profound, almost mystical, level the struggling drinker knows that the only people who really understand this stuff are other struggling drinkers, ideally the recovering kind. And unfortunately our governments do not invest enough in sending such people out there to share their experience, strength and hope. There is not even a half decent weekly radio show on this subject which runs so deep with us — much of the public information and advice is delivered by professionals who are in truth amateurs, who have a kind of perverse gift for making this all-encompassing subject sound almost criminally boring.
So we end up in this strange place in which a measure to stop poor people from getting drunk will probably be of benefit mainly to bus companies who can organise “booze buses” to Northern Ireland where they’ll still be selling the slabs of cans at the old prices, to publicans and to supermarket chains. And probably to Sinn Féin — as another recovering addict, a former 60-smokes-a-day man who keeps a wintry eye on the political scene told me: “It’s like Leo and friends are saying to the poor, ‘If there was any doubt at all in your minds that you wanted to tear it all down, let me settle that for you right now, by making it more difficult for you to drink than it is for anyone else.’”
Though in this bewildering area, the discrimination in itself is not necessarily a deal-breaker — I’m sure there are many alcoholics who’d say: “You can discriminate against me all day long if you can help me find a way out of this madness.”
By coincidence, I stumbled across an old episode of Brideshead Revisited recently, one in which the doomed Sebastian Flyte staggers around his beautiful stately home fantastically drunk on the finest of booze. Being rich didn’t stop Sebastian, and becoming poor wouldn’t have stopped him either.
This is much, much bigger than minimum unit pricing.
On the day after RTÉ One showed Donie O’Sullivan: Capitol Man, a young man came up to me in the street and asked me if I thought journalism might be a good career. I should emphasise that this actually happened, because usually when you hear that someone “came up to me in the street” then they didn’t really. It’s just some disingenuous ideologue trying to pretend they know at least one normal human being who shares their absurd world-view. I should also add the young man is known to me: his father is a friend of mine.
Just fact-checking myself there, like they do in the great newspapers of America. Indeed my favourite fact-checking story goes something like this: a well-known writer mentioned in passing during an interview that when he was a boy, he had a neighbour who played Billy Joel records very loud. The fact-checking department got back to the writer to say they had found that neighbour, who said that to the best of his recollection he had never really been into Billy Joel….
There are these wild extremes in American journalism between the pathological fact-checkers and the propagandists of Fox News who have entirely abandoned even the concept of factual accuracy.
Into this strange land came Donie from Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, from a culture which has a somewhat looser understanding of such things, where something can be “true” without being entirely “accurate” — where it is not beyond the bounds of imagination that you’d have a memory of hearing your neighbour playing Billy Joel records very loud, even if the neighbour claims he doesn’t like Billy Joel.
For example, some serious American journalists initially thought they could take down Donald Trump by fact-checking him, unable to grasp the larger truth that when everything a man says is a lie you’re just wasting your time.
In Donie’s case, maybe it’s this ability to embrace life’s contradictions that enables him to stand there with a CNN microphone talking in a reasonable manner to the MAGA crowd when it would be just as reasonable to run like hell.
Whatever it is, with his stardom he’ll be bringing young people into the game and coming up to me in the street. And I would never discourage them. Journalism may have enabled some very bad guys to flourish, but it’s hard to see anything else taking them out either.
Drogheda United has become the first League of Ireland club to back The Big Step campaign to end gambling advertising and sponsorship in football.
The FAI has already come out of rehab after the Champagne Football days by discontinuing its relationship with its “betting partner”.
Fair dues to them all, but just one thing bothers me — during my childhood Drogheda were just the elegant “Drogheda” then at some point in the 1990s, for no good reason, they started to be nicknamed the “Drogs”.
Time to end that too.