Drinking the country dry?

Have the consequences of decades of irresponsible drinking finally caught up with the Irish public? Michelle McCormick examines the raft of new laws being introduced to curb antisocial behaviour.While most students may be unaware of the abundance of new alcohol legislation being introduced, many of the new laws are aimed at reducing the kind of drinking behaviour that students are notorious for. One prominent barrister has even gone so far as to describe the proposed measures as ‘like prohibition’. So what are the measures involved?Are they simply our due after years of binge drinking, or is the government going too far in restricting our alcohol consumption?Back in July, the Intoxicating Liquor Act came into force, allowing Gardaí to confiscate alcohol being drunk in public, or alcohol being drunk by those under the age of 18. Nothing new there, it would seem, as both those actions are already against the law – but the same piece of legislation is now giving Gardaí the power to fine anyone found to be drunk in public, with a larger fine applying to those found to be drunk and disorderly. The fines range from €100 to €140 depending on the offence, and a person issued with a fine has 28 days to pay it.The official line is that such fines take the offences out of the courts and into the hands of the Gardaí, thus freeing up court time for more serious business. “If a member of An Garda Síochána is of the opinion that a person has committed one of these offences, s/he may serve on that person a fixed charge notice instead of being prosecuted for the offence,” said a statement from the Department of Justice.Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, described the move as “another tool in enforcing the provisions of the law designed to deal with the public disorder consequences of such abuse”. “This will lead to a more efficient and effective use of Garda rescources,” he said.While no-one can question that dealing with drunk and disorderly offenders is something that the Gardaí should be focusing on, the first part of the regulation is less clear – can someone now be fined simply for being drunk on the street? If so, the Gardaí will have a major cleanup operation on their hands, as Dublin’s streets are filled with inebriated, if not abusive, revellers most nights of the week.For students, it’s an issue – can you stumble home from your local pub or club without fear of being fined €100? If that’s the case, this new law will be putting a serious crimp in the social habits of the country’s youth. As Freshers’ Weeks kick off across the country, a new batch of teenagers are being introduced to a new way of socialising; one which in almost every case includes consuming more alcohol, often with the intent of getting drunk. Could this new law mean that simply going home after a night on the tiles is an offence?And if it is, what’s the alternative? We’ve already seen the decline of pubs and clubs in favour of the off-trade in recent months due to the increasing price of alcohol and the weakening economy. But the government is also targeting off-licences as a cause of antisocial drinking behaviour, as well as convenience stores and supermarkets – which means that not only are our going out habits being scrutinised, but our staying-in habits too.Dublin City Council has announced that it’s proposing limits to the size of new off-licences, along with the suggestion that alcohol advertising be banned in convenience stores. Even the Irish College of Psychiatrists is calling for a ban on alcohol advertising, saying that it encourages young teens to start drinking.There are also moves on a wider scale to stop alcohol price promotions, as government bodies fear that cut-price drink may be encouraging antisocial drinking practices. Off-licence opening hours have already been restricted, and must now close by 10pm; while some stores may be forced to separate alcohol from other goods so that it can be hidden from the public when not on sale.All these changes come against a backdrop of figures, which make the movement seem almost redundant. According to the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI), alcohol sales have declined 14 per cent since this time last year. “It’s likely we’ll see a decline in alcohol consumption per adult of 8 per cent or more during the current year, that’s more than the decline we saw over the past six years combined,” said DIGI Chairman Michael Patten.So why all the fuss? Is it simply that the Irish public is paying for past sins in relation to these new laws, or has the government got its legislation in a twist over nothing? It remains to be seen whether the measures being introduced will do anything to curb the Irish penchant for rowdy drinking, or whether our bad behaviour will continue until we’ve literally drank the country dry.