Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

SDLP's moral guardians will only hurt themselves

The DUP's reputation as moralistic killjoys is in danger of being upstaged by a new generation of political party-poopers, says Henry McDonald

Mark H Durkan claimed so-called 'booze buses' were a danger on the roads and should be stopped
Mark H Durkan claimed so-called 'booze buses' were a danger on the roads and should be stopped
Mark H Durkan (left) pictured with Alex Attwood
Mark H Durkan (left) pictured with Alex Attwood
Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan

From its creation in the early-1970s, the Democratic Unionists were, among others things, the party to stop everyone else partying.

They locked up parks and playgrounds on Sundays. They tried to stop people of the same sex having the same rights as their counterparts in Britain.

They banned concerts and they didn't like dirty dancing. They maintained the absurd, tourist-repellent policy of limiting shopping and drinking hours, making the Ulster Sunday forever dreary.

Yet, after a series of personal scandals and embarrassing self-harming moral crusades, the modern DUP has more or less backed off from policing people's bedrooms and curbing their fun.

So it is a strange turn of events that the party that has now taken up the DUP's baton of mo

ralistic social engineering is the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Or should they now be renamed the Spoilsport Dullard Liberal-no-more Party-poopers?

The SDLP's last environment minister, the very able Alex Attwood, did many good things while in office – even if you have to wonder what the party was even doing inside a DUP/Sinn Fein-dominated administration.

How, after all, could the SDLP snipe and criticise the power and territorial carve-ups of the SF/DUP axis, while, at the same time, sitting around the same Cabinet table as the two bigger parties?

Yet, even if you make a case for staying inside the power-sharing tent, there have been a number of occasions when the party strayed far from its origins in a movement dedicated to defend the civil rights of communities and, more importantly, individuals.

One of the most illiberal measures any Stormont minister sought to introduce since power-sharing was re-introduced was the attempt to shut down happy hour drinking for students and young people.

Attwood argued that bargain-boozing for thirsty students and other young people would encourage irresponsible drinking, alcoholism and general social disorder, such as witnessed in Belfast's Holyland.

His successor, Mark H Durkan, has started his career as environment minister on the same anti-libertarian footing.

Durkan wants a clampdown on 'booze buses'. As well as cracking down on revellers drinking illegally in minibuses and hired coaches, Durkan wants to outlaw buses openly, legally advertising boozing trips.

Given that these booze buses are usually hired privately for hen and stag parties, or as fun tours to big musical and sporting events, such regulation is an assault on the individual's freedom to choose.

This is not about the totally justifiable ban on drinking on public transport, or in the street. If everyone on board buys into the idea that they are going on an alcohol-fuelled journey, then they should be left to their own devices.

Booze buses may not be everybody's cup of WKD (including this writer), but why should politicians intervene in the liberty of libertines? It should be no business of the Government to socially engineer the behaviour of consenting adults, whether that be in terms of their alcohol consumption, their drug taking or their sex lives.

Outside of protecting children (who, by their age, cannot and are incapable of giving consent), the state should stay out of people's personal vices.

The irony of this is that, of all the Northern Ireland parties' annual conferences you most looked forward to, it was always the SDLP's.

Not so much for John Hume's single transferrable speech about not being able to eat a flag, or shedding sweat, not blood.

No, the real reason the SDLP annual congress was always the one to wait for was because there were several party stalwarts who could hold their own at the bar and were great company over a few pints and shorts while discussing politics.

Perhaps some of those old SDLP warhorses could advise their younger proteges that launching DUP-style moral clampdowns is counter-productive and unlikely to help the party reconnect with a new generation of voters.

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