Today in the Seanad I spoke on the Intoxicating Liquor (Amendment) Bill 2017 which was introduced by Senator Billy Lawless and co-signed by myself and other Independent Senators. I am delighted that this issue which has been raised on a yearly basis to no avail, has finally been introduced in the Seanad. We know that Ireland’s relationship with alcohol dates to the stone age and like many other countries we have an ambivalent relationship with it. On one hand, excessive drinking is a serious social and health problem, on the other hand the pub, as a focus for drinking, socialising, and culture is an important part of our national identity. We therefore have a dual perception of alcohol as a problem to be managed and a pleasure to be enjoyed and our policy and legislative developments have reflected that ambiguity. As legislators, we are tasked with balancing the right of individuals to make their own lifestyle choices with the ethics of legitimate intervention in public health by the State.
In supporting this Bill I believe that legislation to support our Pub and tourism sector and legislation to tackle alcohol related harm are not mutually exclusive. By supporting one we are not automatically diminishing the other. Lifting the ban on Public Houses being open and alcohol being sold on Good Friday does not interfere with other Government policies and legislation to reduce the harm that excessive use of alcohol creates.
As we speak, the Government's Public Health Alcohol Bill is going through the Oireachtas. Notwithstanding some contentious areas which must be resolved, it is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in Europe for the way that it tackles the pricing, labeling, marketing and availability of alcohol. I supported this Bill when it was in the Seanad but I was not conflicted in supporting today’s Bill either.
Neither is my support of this Bill an attack on the practices and traditions of the Church. As a nation have a strong history of teetotalism, the pledge and the temperance movement. Traditions of abstinence on certain church holidays such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday have been an important part of our social and religious history. Those practices are now in relative decline and our laws must be updated to reflect that.
I am not for one minute undermining the validity or the importance of fast and abstinence for those who wish to practice it, but I am deeply conscious of the growing secularisation and multi religious nature of Irish society, the increasing separation of church and state and our obligations as legislators to meet the needs of an evolving society. Neither do I wish to promote the drinks industry, it does a good enough job of that itself. I want to promote tourism, the Irish Public House and the citizens right to choose without undue interference from the State.
To say that this piece of legislation is overdue is an understatement. The Licenced Vintners Association representing Dublin Publicans and the Vintners Federation of Ireland have been campaigning on this issue for years and I applaud them for their patience which I hope will be rewarded.
I read recently that there are now Irish Pubs in over 40 countries and that the “Irish Pub” is a highly successfully global commodity, a gold mine for owners all over the world trading on the Irish reputation for hospitality, culture and good craic. Their success is not just due to the stout and whiskey for which Ireland is also renowned, but for their unique Irish characteristics. The authentic Irish Pub, the ones in this country, are honeypots for tourists and having them closed on Good Friday makes no moral or commercial sense. In fact, there is a curious irony in the fact that you could drink in an Irish Pub anywhere in the world on Good Friday except in Ireland. Irish pubs, are an intrinsic part of our National Heritage, they are way more than a place to purchase alcohol. Pubs are important “third spaces”, places which are not home and not work, which are inherently democratic, ubiquitous and near at hand. Pubs are our “local” and we frequent them in many ways, some people are “regulars” others occasional visitors, but everyone is welcome.
Pubs have been described as “an icon of the everyday” where people can meet, relax and enjoy music, food and the level of political engagement that Ireland is famous for. The Pub is a place where everything and anything is discussed. They are an intrinsic part of our social capital, often at the centre of community and village life and are a vital part of our tourism offering. Having them closed on Good Friday creates confusion for tourists and does little to enhance public health.
Section 10 of the 1962 Intoxicating Liquor Act already been successfully challenged in Court in Limerick in 2010 albeit in very specific and quite accidental circumstances and rock on Munster! . In his judgement, Judge Tom O’Donnell declared that it “would be somewhat absurd if pubs lost out on business” from the Munster Rugby event. I believe that it is now equally absurd that thousands of pubs are losing out on business on one of the busiest tourist weekends of the year.
Today I welcomed this Bill as a solid and conclusive solution to what has only been previously been addressed by court challenges and piece meal ad hoc solutions. I know that we will have to submit amendments at Committee stage to provide for the sale of alcohol in Restaurants as this is absent from the current version of the Bill but I can see no impediment or logic to repealing the ban which now makes no moral or commercial sense.