Sign of the times


SPEAKING HIS MIND Ballinrobe publican John O’Haire is pictured behind the counter in ‘John O’s’ last weekend. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Ballinrobe publican John O’Haire is frustrated by the lack of help from politicians for small towns and businesses

Mike Finnerty

THE signs on the front window of John O’Haire’s pub in Ballinrobe speak for themselves.
‘Bullshit Free Zone. Politicians NOT WELCOME.’
‘Fair Play to Minister Ross who accomplished what Cromwell, Boycott and the British Government failed’.
Last Tuesday The Mayo News spent some time in the well-known publican’s company, and he was more than happy to explain where his anger and frustration is coming from.
Like so many business owners in rural Ireland, and a lot of people in general right across the country, he feels that the politicians in Leinster House and legislators in ’The Pale’ have washed their hands of them.
“They’re dictating, not helping,” he says. “The stick is out the whole time. Ordinary people are being fined and penalised but white-collar crime seems to be okay.
“How many bankers went to jail? How many developers were held to account? A man caught poaching salmon would get longer in jail than what the bankers got for putting this country under.
“The crash did a huge amount of damage down at this level, more than the politicians in Dublin seem to realise.
“Once the recession hit, things took a turn and it hasn’t bounced back.”
O’Haire’s opened its doors for the first time in 1933, but between ‘the crash’, ‘bad planning’, ‘Shane Ross’ drink driving laws’ and ‘below-cost selling of alcohol in supermarkets’, its current proprietor says that business has never been as tough.
In fact, John O’Haire believes that a once thriving town like Ballinrobe, which once had a pub for every week of the year, is in danger of becoming ‘a village’.
“We’re told the economy is growing, that there’s more money in circulation, that the boom is back in Dublin,” he said.
“Okay, there might be growth in Dublin, but that’s the Pale. It’s like Cromwellian times, the Pale is busy so everything is grand — ‘To hell with the country’.
“Business is gone,” he added. “You have the same number of active pubs in the village of Kilmaine now as you have in Ballinrobe.
“All our youth are gone. I see it here on a Saturday night, and if you saw somebody under the age of 30, you’d have to look twice.
“We’re gone back in time, it’s very hard to see positives.
“If you want change for a business, you have to go to the bank in Claremorris or Castlebar. They’re making a village out of us.”
As a publican who spends all of his working week behind the counter of his own premises, John O’Haire is well placed to tell you what people are talking most about these days.
He says there is no contest.
“Undoubtedly, the big one is [Minister] Shane Ross’ decision to introduce stricter drink-driving laws.
 “That law is black and white, but I believe there needs to be a bit of grey. Some people can have a few drinks and drive away fine, other people can’t.
“But now the fear of God is in everyone.
“There are people who used to come out for a few drinks at night, and now they’re being targeted,” he continued.
“I remember the fair days out there, a farmer might come in, have two or three drinks, and he went home fine. There was no issue, everyone got home safely.
“Zero tolerance is alright if you’re living inside in the middle of a city, the people who say that aren’t living in the countryside.”
As for the years ahead, John O’Haire is uncertain about what the future holds for most people who run businesses in small towns.
He has nothing but praise for local companies like McHales, Wood Systems Ltd, and Costello & McDermotts, but he hears more and more stories about young people preparing to emigrate. His own son, Robert, is currently in Australia.
And he sees drugs becoming a scourge on towns and villages right across the country, with Ballinrobe being no exception.
He is dismayed that more isn’t being done by the Government of the day to address these sorts of issues.
A good start, he believes, would be ‘putting driving, a practical skill, on the curriculum’ at secondary school.
“Latin isn’t going to get them a job in England, America or Australia.”
He’d also be in favour of Gardaí visiting schools regularly to ‘build relationships’ because of a ‘disconnect’ between local residents and local Gardai.
“If the kids are educated, and get to build a relationship with the Gardaí, it will grow from that.
“And it also might help to clamp down on the issue of drugs. “That’s a huge issue now.”
Another bugbear for John O’Haire is the topic of ‘below-cost selling of alcohol’ — something that has been a game-changer in terms of how and where people now socialise.
“People can buy drink now so cheaply in supermarkets, that below-cost selling is a huge issue in this country that has never been tackled,” he said.
“Would the Government not be better to cut the amount of tax on food, and feed more people, and increase the price of drink in supermarkets? One hand always washed the other.”
We return to the topic of the signs that he stuck to his front window last year, around the time that the new drink-driving laws came into force.
Would he like to talk directly to the local politicians when election time eventually comes around?
“Not unless they can come along and tell me something different,” he explained.
“I didn’t do that [put up the signs] for the sake of it, it was just sheer frustration.
“We’re being dictated to now all the time.
“You have Shane Ross [Minister for Transport] who doesn’t have to come outside The Pale to get his votes.
“You have Charlie Flanagan  [Minister for Justice] , who’s due to retire. He’ll sign anything at the moment.
“You have Michael Ring [Minister for Rural Affairs] , he’s guaranteed his pension.
“Although he probably won’t get elected after this [supporting the Government’s drink-driving legislation] despite all the Greenway stuff that he’s delivered.
“Michael Ring was running with the Vintners Association, supporting them, right up to the time that this legislation was introduced.
“What did I ever do on him? He’s a country man, not a city man.
“I’d like to know what excuse he can offer for supporting that legislation.”
When contacted by The Mayo News, a spokesman for Minister Ring declined to comment on Mr O’Haire’s remarks.
However, The Irish Times did report in January that Minister Ring was among a number of ministers who ‘voiced their concerns’ about the increased number of drink-driving checkpoints being operated by An Garda Síochána in rural Ireland.
Minister Ring is also on record as opposing Minister Ross’ plans back in December to drastically increase penalty points for motoring offences.
John O’Haire is still adamant that more needs to be done.
“The Government would want to start listening to the people. “People are very disgruntled.”