Tuesday 22 October 2019

Larissa Nolan: 'Harris is facing a sobering lesson - his busybody antics will alienate the voters'

Off course: Health Minister Simon Harris has picked the wrong target with his reward card crackdown. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Off course: Health Minister Simon Harris has picked the wrong target with his reward card crackdown. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Larissa Nolan

Is Simon Harris the biggest dry-arse ever? The Health Minister seems intent on squeezing the fun out of everything - telling us it is for our own good. He wants to ban all he doesn't agree with and assures us it's for the safety and protection of all. He's like a prim parent who hasn't a clue about what life is like in the real world.

His latest clampdown is on supermarket shoppers with reward cards. When those of us crazy rebels with clubcard points try to use them to buy booze, we'll be stopped in our tracks.

He says this is to reduce alcohol consumption and the harm caused by its misuse. It sounds worthy. Except he's got the wrong target.

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This won't affect bingers, who aren't relying on SuperValu vouchers to drink themselves into oblivion. Students don't spend enough in supermarkets to benefit from points schemes. It won't make any difference to alcoholics, who would starve for the week rather than be left dry.

It certainly won't be noticed by the wealthy, who are immune from financially prohibitive measures to control behaviour.

Instead he is targeting the responsible drinker; the moderate, the ordinary person, those whose habits you want to encourage - not punish - in a country beset by an unhealthy, destructive drinking culture.

Targeting those likely to sign up for a supermarket savings scheme in the first place, to download the app or cut out and keep their vouchers, and have them in their wallet on the next shopping trip. Holders of loyalty cards don't tend to be menaces to society.

In probability, they have little disposable income left from their hard-earned cash after paying the extortionate rent and the rising energy bills, and who surely deserve to reward themselves after a hefty spend on the weekly family grocery shop.

They call these people "coupon collectors" in America. They're generally the mothers who run the household budget; they're regarded as thrifty, organised, diligent, sensible and responsible. They've got it together.

When the SuperValu vouchers arrive in the post, I realise I am one of them. It gives me a sense of everyday joy to open the letter telling me how much I'm getting off my shopping over the next month. It feels like a small but welcoming reward for all the hard work put in and all the drudge money spent on essentials. Somebody, somewhere acknowledges it.

As we all know, when you have kids in the house, part of the deal is you don't get out much. At the end of a working week, you might have friends over for a bottle of wine or two.

Being a quality over quantity person, I'd pick one special bottle of something very good, rather than a greedy amount of cheap plonk - which, incidentally, always seems to have a significantly higher alcohol content.

But I'd feel bad about it eating into the shopping budget. So, when I get my tenner off for spending €50, I use it to buy a reduced-price bottle of fancy Bordeaux. It's my treat of the week. It makes me dance around the aisles. What's wrong with that?

The only one who is going to gain from this clampdown is the supermarket and the taxman. It's a solution in search of a problem.

Why does the Government want to control how I spend my own money? Aren't ministers the ones who are always going on about the free market? It's my SuperValu voucher and I'll buy what I like.

It's embarrassing enough that we can't buy drink on a Sunday before lunchtime and have the 10pm curfew. It doesn't stop anyone who is determined to drink to excess. None of these measures ever affects the rates of alcohol abuse, still up there at the top of the world tables, the root cause of Ireland's ills.

Simon Harris's move is typical of his party's warped brand of "liberalism" - rules and regulations brought in to protect us. But the more we accept these laws sold as being for our safety, the more we voluntarily sacrifice our liberty, until we have lost all agency.

It takes acrobatic levels of moral contortions to view this move as being liberal or progressive. It's text-book right-wing elitism. It's another slap for the working class. It's also a fundamental misunderstanding of the complexity of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

There is no grassroots constituency for this kind of preachy, busybody measure that will just hit those who "get up early in the morning" in the pocket. As a friend texted me jokingly when the news broke: "Now I know how it feels to be triggered." You'll be surprised, Minister Harris, how unpopular such a measure will make you at the school gates.

His bar on using reward schemes to buy alcohol is subject to approval by the EU and won't come into place until September 2020. With an election planned for spring, there may be a new government by then.

And Fine Gael may find out the hard way that real liberals will always choose to live in a free society, and be deemed able to handle the risk that brings, rather than a police state where it is decided for us what we need protection from.

Irish Independent

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