HEADLINE: Kerry County Council (in Ireland) passes resolution allowing rural drinkers to drive home drunk.
REALITY: Politics 101 is hard at work.
Alcoholism and rural depression may not be Ireland’s only problems, but they’re the ones that seem to gather the most consistent publicity. Researchers haven’t decided which is cause and which is effect. Media reports make them appear to be tied to a pub culture that encourages drinking and discourages isolation.
Disclaimers: Some of my earliest and best preschool memories are of spending quality time sitting next to my grandfather in a local pub. Also, I first heard this story over a pint in a pub and thought it was just a story until I did my homework. Just like the internet, things you hear in a pub occasionally have some truthiness in them.
A few years ago Kerry County Council came up with a unique solution to the rural isolation/depression/suicide problem. Ten years after a nationwide ban on happy hours, in the face of a nationwide DUI crackdown that was being blamed for increased rural depression and thousands of pub closings, the town council proposed legalization of drink driving. Sure, locally-owned rural pubs were closing at an alarming rate – over a thousand since 2007. But ignore the man behind the curtain — a freefalling economy and changing social attitudes. While the law passed the local council, it never got its imprimatur from the Department of Transport. The results: a political statement that didn’t change the status quo.
Some of the statistics used to support the bill showed that the social and economic costs of the DUI crackdown were significant: Increased isolation engenders depression, which hurts work productivity and increases national healthcare costs. Fewer people drinking leads to unemployment from closed pubs, which leads to additional unemployment because there will be fewer people spending money in these rural communities. And neither the pubs nor people would be paying taxes, leaving less money for social services. And if you feel that statistics fall in the same class as lies and damned lies, how about carefully chosen phrases. Like “rural parishes” instead of towns? “Driving home on minor roads on their tractors.” Or in a different press release: “On rural roads that you could not do any more than 20 or 30 miles an hour.”
Oh, and have you heard that the bill was brought up at the end of a long council meeting when most of its members had already gone home? And that the counselor who shepherded it through owns a local pub? Ireland’s alcohol industry has been compared to America’s gun, tobacco and fracking lobbies. When threatened, they use every street-fighting technique known to mankind, and a few more, for good measure.
I don’t know the answer to the problem. Putting an entire nation on the wagon (unless it’s driving them home at night) isn’t a solution.
So…which is the lesser evil in search of the greater good: rampant rural unemployment with unhappy, but otherwise healthy people? Or a healthy economy built on the backs of formerly depressed drunks? Both sides have statistics. Both sides point out the consequences – intended and otherwise – of the other’s position.
Oh, and one more thing, now, on a green island where it rains all the time, water is being metered and billed. So let’s add another question to the mix: Which pint is cheaper – water or the black stuff? Which is better for the economy? And which is better for the drinker? Remember, Guinness is good for you.