DURING a recent public meeting with the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI), I was struck by the unease that the industry feels towards the political system.
Not too long ago, that was not the case, to the extent that the politician’s clinic, or rather his dozen clinics, were invariably held in the pub.
Back then, in the age of Tull McAdoo, often like John B Keane’s legendary TD, the politician might even have owned the pub too.
Some distance in the relationship between politicians and the pub is no harm. However, has the current hostility in certain quarters, on both sides, gone too far in the other direction? And is it now time, as the old song goes about how the cowboy and the cowgirl should be friends, for the politician and the publican to build bridges and make up?
We all know the case against alcohol. But we are awake and energised on that issue. What is often forgotten by contrast is the contribution the drinks industry makes to the state and the economy.
We are aware from industries such as Clonakilty and West Cork Distillery of the current contribution and potential future contribution of the drinks trade and Ireland’s public houses to the economy. And we have, as a government, facilitated Bills such as Alan Kelly’s on Craft Beers and Good Friday opening hours.
For me, the most important contribution of the pub is not just economic. Living as I do, in Cork South West, in vast swathes of my constituency the public house is the main social infrastructure that we have. It is, in fact the last we have in many cases.
Indeed in the Corner Bar in Skibbereen, where I met with DIGI, they hold a singing club every first Friday, and the place is packed, with many drinking Ballygowan and soft drinks. It is the only pub that I am aware of where a full house holds silent for singer after singer on the night, with brief intros in between for chats. If this pub were to close it would be dearly missed and a huge social void would be left in its place.
Contrary to what some Dublin 4 commentators appear to believe, wild eyed drunken drivers do not emerge from such pubs and take to the roads in their cars. The pub instead is a key centre for socialisation where farmers can meet, or groups can play a few hands of twenty-fives or,as I say, have a good auld sing song.
There are those who say — could we not just drink 7 Up at such events? 7 Up is of course a very pleasant drink but a lifetime of it would be somewhat staid. A few alcoholic beverages is a pleasant diversion from what can sometimes be a stressful and hard life on the farm, and many hard working people like a few pints at the end of the week. It may not be for those who wish to live Beverley Hills style perfect lives, but it does for us.
I apologise to no-one for my view that we need to protect and to value our rural pubs to ensure the light stays on in rural villages and communities. I am from a small rural West Cork village. I know how things work there.
Last week, a study by DIGI found there were 1,477 fewer pubs in Ireland last year than in 2005, a 17.1% drop. In Cork, the decline was 25%, more than anywhere else.
We do not want a situation to develop where the rural pub, like the Welsh coal-mine, can only be found in heritage centres. We do not want to bring buses of foreign tourists past the blacked-out windows of derelict pubs and abandoned village greens. Apart from anything else they wouldn’t come back.
Abandoning our pubs would be an act of social, economic and cultural vandalism. If we have no pubs in rural Ireland, for example, we might obey all the laws (which of course we should) but we will have no location for our music sessions or for the GAA club or even the constituency clinic. And we will have no light on in the small village late (and sometimes too late) into the night.
Therefore, the government is becoming increasingly supportive of the pub trade, not just in areas such as the Craft Beer Bill and Good Friday, but in new critical rural transport links.
The Government has not increased excise rates for the publican for the past five years.
I intend to continue to be a strong advocate for the rural pub in a way that helps rather than hinders their future as social and community centres. And I am focusing on further new transport strategies for people living in rural Ireland.
I represent a rural constituency and want my people to be happy and have facilities. And, to be frank and honest, the rural pub is not, for the most part at least, some den of iniquity.
If we close our rural pubs, the consequences inevitably are depopulation, loneliness and social isolation. And the consequences of that, as we know too often in this state, are truly terrible. That I know in my other capacity as a Minister for Mental Health.
A new phrase that has entered sociological discourse is the concept of wellbeing. When it comes to minding ourselves, too much of the stick of temperance and too little of ‘cakes and ale’ hampers that. Given my own previous life as a pub-owner, I can perhaps see both sides a little better when it comes to the relationship between politics and the pub. There has recently in that relationship been more heat than light and a little too much conflict.
Now that we live in a more temperate society, that should end and the TD and the publican should aim to be friends again.