CONUNDRUM? Prosecutions for drink driving remain at a high level in Mayo.
So, will Minister Shane Ross’s proposed new legislation to further reduce the drink-driving blood-alcohol limit down from 50 to 20 mg finally call time on rural pubs? After all, what bachelor farmer is going to crank up his Massey Ferguson for a saucer-full of beer?
He is as well to stay at home and stoke up that poitín still. So, the chasm between the metropolitan mind-set of the political elite and the culchies of rural Ireland continues. Remember the media storm this time four years ago when Kerry County Council passed a motion by Councillor Danny Healy-Rae that rural dwellers be given permits to allow them have two or three drinks in their local and be allowed drive home.
His brother, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae’s request to the then Minister for Transport, Leo Varadkar, to introduce new laws to facilitate this was given short shrift.
To no avail. Michael Healy-Rae argued: “This would greatly benefit people living alone looking at four walls and restore some bit of social activity in local pubs and may also help prevent depression and suicide.” But Mr Varadkar responded: “Given the unprecedented progress in road safety in recent years, I find it difficult to respond to a proposal that would undermine so much of that achievement.”
FOR rural publican, Mary Mortimer the whole culture of consuming alcohol and drink-driving is more nuanced and complex than measuring the blood-alcohol ratio of a person behind a wheel. She co-owns Darby’s pub, Carrakennedy, a townland situated 12 kilometres from Westport on the road to Leenane. Bucking the trend of closure of rural pubs, Mary Mortimer and her partner reopened Darby’s last year after it had been closed for four years.
“It is very unusual to reopen a rural pub these days,” she told The Mayo News. “But we have the most amazing community out here. It is one that you don’t get everywhere and the pub seems to have helped to bring the heart back into the community.
“Of course, these proposals will affect us but, perhaps, the minister and the Government, should look instead at what is happening with teenage drinking. By the time most young people have reached the legal age to drink they are already seasoned top-shelf drinkers. They don’t go out for a social drink anymore, they go out to get totally hammered. Government should be looking at the 15 to 18 age-group and how they should be encouraged to socialise in a more healthy way,” Mary Mortimer said.
She said that daytime drinking no longer happened in rural pubs and that a lot of her clientele use shanks mare after a few drinks.
“Many of our customers drive to the pub and leave the car here overnight, if they live within a reasonable distance they have their ‘knock me downs!’ (high-viz jackets) with them and put them on at closing time and head off walking home, sometimes up to two miles away,” she said.
Killala-based Fine Gael Cllr Jarlath Munnelly said ‘it would be more appropriate to enforce the current road traffic laws first, before changing the standards’.
“I’d need to see evidence before I’d be convinced of Minister Ross’s proposal. But there is need for some action to reverse the apparent trend of an increase in the prevalence of drink driving,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil’s Deputy Dara Calleary is more categorical in his attitude to the proposed legislation.
“I am against Minister Ross’s proposal to reduce the blood alcohol limit at this moment in time as I believe the issue of resources, for An Garda Siochána and for the upgrade of our road network, should be addressed in the first instance.
“I am gravely concerned at the increase in fatal road traffic accidents in 2016 which I believe is linked to the lack of resources presently available to An Garda Síochána to implement the current blood alcohol limits,” Deputy Calleary said.
He argued there was ‘an urgent need for Minister Ross to focus his attention on ensuring that An Garda Síochána is adequately resourced so that as high a volume of check-points as carried out before and during Christmas, can become a norm as opposed to during times of concerted effort’.
“As Minister for Transport, Shane Ross also has a responsibility to ensure continued investment in the national and regional road network with road safety as a particular focal point in the delivery of same. When these issues are resolved satisfactorily, we can have a national debate on lowering the blood alcohol limit,” he added.
For Sinn Féin Senator Rose Conway-Walsh it is the increasing numbers of drug-drivers and not farmers having a pint on the way home from the bog who should be targeted by the laws. “Obviously I will support any measure that reduces drink driving but I do not the think the proposal will have any great effect. Those who intend to drink and drive will do so. Rather than decreasing the current legal limit I would give the Gardaí greater resources and instruction to implement the current law and to tackle the serious problem of illegal drugs in Mayo,” she said.
“I have a far greater fear of meeting someone driving towards me who is high on drugs than someone who has had a single drink. The number of drug convictions in this county is no way reflective of the availability of drugs in every small town and parish. Those supplying drugs need to be named and shamed not the farmer who has had a pint on his way from the bog,” Ms Conway-Walsh continued.
Mayo’s VFI (Vintners Federation of Ireland) Chairman, Alan Gielty told The Mayo News that Minister Ross was ‘trying to kill a dying trade in rural Ireland’.
“I have already invested in a shuttle bus to pick-up and drop-off my customers. To keep my business sustainable all year round though I have to depend on the big holidays like Christmas and Easter and bank holidays. The next busy time for me will be St Patrick’s Day,” Alan Gielty said.
He said that one-in-five pubs have closed in Mayo in the last ten years. According to figures, there were 467 pubs in the county in 2005 and by the end of 2015 there were 372, a drop of 95. Gielty reckons some 30 more have closed in the interim.
“These were nearly all rural pubs,” he said.
Adding a hopeful note, however, Alan Gielty said: “I think we have gone through the worst of the closures and tourism trade from the Wild Atlantic Way seems to be helping businesses on the route, but pubs have had to adapt by serving food.”
Minister Ross’s proposals
RURAL TDs have reacted negatively to the Transport Minister’s proposed reform to reduce the blood-alcohol limit from 50 to 20 mg which means that a single alcoholic drink could push some drivers over the limit. This significant reform has been prepared by the Road Safety Authority (RSA).
While there was a 15 percent increase in road deaths last year, many rural TDs have questioned how the existing laws are being enforced by An Garda Síochána, citing the impact of severe cutbacks on their road traffic division’s resources.
Ross has also said he is considering ‘naming and shaming’ drink-drivers but conceded that because of data protection considerations this measure will take some time to implement.
Pubs in Mayo in 2005
Pubs in Mayo in 2015