Thursday 14 December 2017

John Greene: Sense prevails but funding fight goes on

Alcohol sponsorship exchanges show how effective Dáil can be, writes John Greene

John Greene

John Greene

The debate on alcohol sponsorship in sport made it into the Dáil chamber recently and unlike a lot of the megaphone politics on the issue in recent months, the few TDs present combined to produce an informed and thoughtful session.

Our general perception of Dáil debates is scarred by the all-too-often farcical outbursts we see on our tv screens, but on this occasion it was refreshing to see that those who spoke on whether or not a ban on drinks companies sponsoring sporting events should be introduced were well prepared. For the first time it appeared that all the nuances within this problem are understood.

On the one hand, there is an acknowledgement that linking sport and alcohol in a culture which has an unhealthy relationship with drink is not a good idea; but on the other hand, the State's contribution to sport as an instrument of public good is so poor that to introduce a ban which takes millions out of sport without first finding alternative revenue sources would be catastrophic. Both sides of the debate had their say. So fair play to John O'Mahony, Alex White, Timmy Dooley, Jerry Buttimer, Mick Wallace, Maureen O'Sullivan, Eoghan Murphy, Derek Keating, Dessie Ellis, Róisín Shortall and Frank Feighan. They showed that serious issues can be properly teased out in the Dáil by people who know what they are talking about.

The trigger for this particular exchange was a report by the Joint Committee on Transport and Communication. The committee had sought the views of both sides before putting forward a set of recommendations, which John O'Mahony presented to the Dáil. The committee recommended that the sponsorship be allowed to remain until it can be replaced by other funding and, crucially, that if and when a ban is introduced, it should be when it is being implemented across Europe, and not just in Ireland.

Alex White, the Minister for State at the Department of Health, is the politician who has been driving this proposed ban and he is sticking to his guns. Despite the fact that it has been stalled for now, he believes it – and other measures – must be introduced to tackle Ireland's alcohol problem. He made a lengthy and thought-provoking contribution to the debate, although it was noticeable that he was more conciliatory than he has previously been. But of all the inputs, it was that of Eoghan Murphy which caught our eye. It's worth producing in full because it shows that our parliament can have a meaningful role when intelligent politicians engage with a subject.

"We often sit late into the evening in this House and when we finish our work I like to go home and have a few beers and look at my iPad. I am watching the American version of The Office at the moment. Invariably, because we get out of here so late, there are no beers in my fridge and I cannot go to the off-licence to get any. Are people trying to tell me that if the off-licence were open for an extra half hour, one hour or even two hours, the serious drinking problem we have in this country would be worse? That is why that law was enacted.

"Two years ago I was invited to see the Manic Street Preachers. The acting chairman, Deputy John Lyons, is also a fan. It was a great acoustic set of 12 songs. Over the course of the evening I had a couple of pints of Guinness. It was Arthur's Day. This year people tried to tell me I could not do that again – that I could not be trusted to drink responsibly because there would be a crowd of people down in Temple Bar getting hammered. There is a crowd of people down in Temple Bar getting hammered every night of the week. Let us say I am going to a Leinster v London Irish rugby match. I have mates from London or from Ireland coming to the game, and we have a few pints and get drunk. Are people trying to tell me we got drunk because the word 'Heineken' was visible on the ticket, the poster at the end of the pitch or in the pub where we were drinking?

"We have a problem with our attitude to alcohol in this country. It is historical and cultural and is best addressed through education and example, not through policies that, although well-intentioned, are not evidence-based and serve only to frustrate responsible and law-abiding citizens. Action must be taken, but it is about the right kind of action. If there is an unhealthy association between sport and alcohol in this country, it is not because of sponsorship. The sponsorship has followed the culture. There is a problem with young people accessing alcohol because our society – parents, gardaí, sports clubs, pubs, local events, even I myself – turn a blind eye. I often chat to my younger cousins who are underage about their drinking habits and we have a laugh about it. We are all responsible for the way in which we perpetuate our attitude to drink through the generations. There is a problem with advertising that targets young people and tries to make an essential link between good times and alcohol. We see that in particular with alcopops. Some of the television advertisements should not be allowed because they are irresponsible. Deputy Wallace raised an interesting question of whether the State

should be liable for the health expenses incurred by individuals who are knowingly and wilfully abusing alcohol in their daily lives.

"We cannot seem to talk properly about alcohol in this country despite everything that has happened and everything we know. We saw another demonstration of that during the week when we discussed Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan's cannabis Bill. The context for such a discussion should be about acceptable levels of intoxication in our society. That discussion must happen hand-in-hand with one about alcohol. Cannabis and alcohol must be discussed together in that context, and why not? I commend Deputy O'Mahony and his committee, who have done some excellent work in compiling this report, listening to the different interest groups and debating this. It is very important that they brought it here to the Dáil for debate because it is a serious issue and because many people, myself included, do not sit on the committee and did not have an opportunity to contribute to the debate because we were involved in our own committee work. We have that opportunity here and it is an important part of the reforms we have brought in.

"I also congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, on all the work he has done, particularly on pricing. As other speakers have said, that is an issue that must be addressed. I support the sensible proposals made in the report."

Common sense has prevailed for now. But there is no time to rest – these are the men and women who now can help sport further, and finding those alternative funding sources is a good place to start. And perhaps White can lead out on this, by looking in his own Department of Health budget for a way to link sport and health. How hard can that be?

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