Belfast Telegraph

We must raise the bar to call time on boozing

Nelson McCausland says he is dedicated to tackling our unhealthy relationship with alcohol. But his latest proposals are a muddle-headed mish-mash, says Malachi O'Doherty

What's to be done about Alcoholic Ulster? Our streets are swamped by human litter in the early hours of the morning, as young people pour out of pubs and clubs in a shambling mass, more like a rabble than something comparatively more orderly and dignified, say like wildebeest crossing the Serengeti.

Don't, whatever you do, bring your granny to A-amp;E on a Friday or Saturday night. Urge her only to fall in the middle of the week, so that she doesn't have to sit waiting for treatment among snarly, restless drunk people who won't remember in the morning how they came about their injuries.

We do have a problem, but, then again, so has the rest of Ireland and the UK.

What we don't have is a solution and, for want of one, successive governments toy with ideas like early-closing, or late-closing, or staggered closing of clubs; like regulating access to drink in supermarkets, or changing the way off-licences operate.

Or they put prices up; especially handy for the extra taxation that brings in, but morally compromising since it makes the Exchequer the chief beneficiary of addiction.

Our Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland, is toying with a few ideas, too. He wants to levy late-night businesses to help pay for the the added demands that drinking imposes on the emergency services. Well, he says he does.

I doubt if we will ever see dependable accounting that will explain how the levy that the clubs put on the drink to pay the levy that Nelson puts on the clubs will buy new ambulances, or police cars.

But, if we ever did, we would have to scrutinise the rest of the health and policing budgets to be sure that nothing was cut somewhere else to even things out.

Anyway, I am not going to get into a strop worrying about whether the ambulance service is to be funded by nightclubs, because I don't believe the money will be anything but a tax.

It is in no more danger of being earmarked, or ring-fenced, than our water taxes will be of finding themselves being spent on water.

But, in principle, if Nelson is saying that those who sell drink to kids and get them sloshed in the middle of the night should help fund the emergency services who pick up the pieces and patch them together again, that's a good idea.

But, if it introduces the custom of those who profit by the damage paying for the repair, then that is the beginning of dismantling a general service for all.

What is the end result? Tobacco companies paying for the consultant who treats your lung cancer?

The whole point of service provision through general taxation is that everyone is entitled and everybody pays through taxation. Would Nelson have a situation in which your ambulance doesn't arrive because the nightclubs haven't paid the bill?

His other big idea is to humiliate drinkers by building solid walls dividing off-licences from supermarkets. That way, if you want a bottle of wine with your dinner, you have to queue twice.

Currently, we have a dainty concession to the idea that drink is anathema, by having a little gate barrier in Marks and Spencer, presumably to spare the squeamish the danger of stumbling into the drinks aisle by accident.

Will this wall discourage people from buying? Ach, too much trouble, we'll go without tonight. Well, that might work on a light drinker, who is in a hurry and doesn't mind going without a glass of wine. But the light drinker isn't the problem. The heavy drinker is more likely to buy the drink first and go without dinner if in a hurry, or short of money.

Or maybe the fear is that the drink is currently being bought on impulse by people who have come in to buy Tampax, or a packet of potato bread. Spare them the sight of the drink and the notion won't even arise in them. This is as daft - and for much the same reason.

The person who is wavering between the idea of having, or not having, a drink, who is nearly as comfortable going without - rare as that person might be - is not the one who is going to be a drain on the health service, or provide much tax through their consumption, either.

What Nelson needs to do is think about why people drink and what they get out of it. He needs to admit that this is our greatest addiction; that alcohol abuse is a social catastrophe and work with those people who have practical ideas and remedies and support them.

Look at the smokers who stand in the rain outside pubs, savouring their drug of need. Do they look as if they will give up, or cut down, just because they are humiliated, or inconvenienced?

Well, it didn't work for them. And it isn't going to work for the boozer, either.

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