June 1, 2003

Ireland's great moral debate

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Old Trafford looked amazing last Wednesday night with the huge banners, fire-works and the constant din of drums and bugles. Football crowds – Italianstyle – offer a real spectacle and while some complained about the nil-all draw, the standard of football was awesome.

At extra time, the reactions of the various nationalities around me spoke volumes.The Italians, particularly for some reason the AC fans, were nervously engrossed, gesticulating indignantly at the “stronzo” (presumably the ref) and holding heads in disbelief as chance after chance was squandered.

Beside me, a German was texting frantically to her mates back home displaying the thumb and finger action of someone born in the 1980s.

But most telling of all was the sign language of the locals. In front of me, two Mancunian women were lifting imaginary pints to their lips and pointing to watches, signalling to their mates, two rows further down, that if this goes to penalties, nobody will get a drink in the city.

Forty-five minutes and innumerable rancid chip vans later, we find ourselvesina barsome hundred metres from the stadium. We are in the celebrated, renovated dock area.

What is it about the British that has them eulogising about their echoey, windswept and empty renovated docklands as if they are to urban planning what Franco Baresi was to sweeping? It is one minute past eleven and the clock is ticking. “Time please” screams a typically rude Manc’ barman as he stands over two Italian blokes, trying to grab their full glasses out of their hands.

The plastic, soulless bar is one of those awful English multiples, bright and mock Victorian, where even Robbie Williams screeches to be heard over the fruit machines. The pressganged Italian visitors are more perplexed than angry. Fifty minutes later and we’re in Chinatown.

Only two hours since AC Milan lifted the Champions League title and in the city that is playing host to 70,000 visitors, everything is closed. Apart from a few grotty Chinese restaurants, there is nowhere to eat or drink. Opposite us, a group of bewildered Milanese sophisticates prod some soggy Chicken Chow Mein around a greasy plate.

So this is how the English celebrate? It is a pathetic vision. If you want to chat to a couple of friends in Manchester after 11pm, there is always McDonalds, Burger King or a bus shelter, which you can share with the local drunks, but don’t look for a bar, that would be corrupting.

Welcome to England and welcome to the world envisaged by our Justice Minister Michael McDowell.

The Minister’s draft bill on alcohol with its prohibitionist nonsense is exactly what not to do if you are worried about the small minority of people whose idea of a good time is ten pints, a few vodka and red bulls, followed by a scrap. Why does someone who calls himself a liberal concern himself about when pubs, clubs and restaurants open and close? What business is it of his whether I want to have a drink at 4am or 4pm? Has he ever been dancing?

Clearly, McDowell wants to determine your social life, when you drink, with whom and where.

What next, a PD-inspired People’s Central Commissariat for the Prevention of Illicit Pleasures? The Progressive Democrats are supposed to stand for less state involvement, more individual choice and a limited nanny state.

Yet the minister is doing the opposite. Why? Why do the lovers of the Anglo-American way of life trust us

with our money but not our morals? Why do our Italian and continental neighbours trust us with our own morals but not our own money?

For example, in the PD view of the world – influenced heavily by Anglo- American thinking – there is a moral argument against excessive taxes.

They believe that taxes are an attack on liberty. According to their creed, the handmaiden of high taxes is high government spending, which is a disguised effort at social engineering and as such, amoral.

The rhetorical question always proffered by the Anglo-American camp is, “why tax effort?”. Up to this point, I’m with them most of the way, but I can’t deal with their moral positioning on human behaviour. If individuals are to be trusted with their own money, why not their own drinking habits? In contrast, the Italians view high taxes as totally normal and don’t appear to mind their government putting its hand in their pockets. But telling them when to eat and where – no way Romano.

A British or American politician who has an affair or a weakness for casual sex with multiple partners is regarded with horror, yet in France or Italy no one cares.

This tolerance in the area of personal morality is not limited to Latins. From the Teutonic Germans, Calvinist Dutch to the Hanseatic Danes, social morality begins with taxes, in come equality and economics and ends at your own hall door.

Continentals believe that the money culture celebrated in the US, where social inequality is regarded as fair and in many ways essential, is more morally corrupting to society than all-night carousing.Thus we have a strange dichotomy where, in the English speaking world it is seen as logical to rail against the immorality of high taxes,yet getyour political knickers in a twist over all-night partying.

In direct contrast, most of the continental mainstream fulminate against the immorality of low taxes and the Anglo culture of greed, while encouraging individual choice in all aspects of personal behaviour. In the US, the biggest issue in recent presidential elections has been the character issue. Did the president ever smoke a joint? Who cares? Well thousands of Americans apparently do. And this from the country where one of the biggest cash crops in the economy is marijuana!

The difference in moral standpoints of these two cultures could hardly be more stark. In one culture there is nothing morally wrong with a chief executive getting paid 400 times more than the average employee of a firm, yet it is morally egregious to order a drink after 11pm on a Saturday night.

In the other, the state knows better than you do when it comes to your money and sees fit to relieve you of about 50 per cent of your income at source, yet it sees nothing wrong with smoking grass. In those countries, people who move abroad to avoid taxes are vilified, but if an individual chooses to ruin his life via heroin it is regarded as a societal problem rather than an individual deathwish. Bizarre.

Over the coming years, Irish society has to make a choice or a series of choices. The Boston-Berlin debate is argued about in narrow economic parameters that are entirely insufficient. Economics is a very limited science and we should resist the modern tyranny of economists and their accountant henchmen in dictating public debate. It may be too high a price to pay if lower taxes and higher economic growth result in glum Chinese restaurants, serving watered down beer at 11.30pm. 


  1. Colm

    Excellent article. In complete agreement.

  2. Philip

    Of course I completely agree, the government has no right to
    dictate how we spend our free time.
    But in fairness, the government in both Britain and Ireland
    is responding to not only a serious problem, but a growing
    one. To ignore the binge drinking, which is making
    socialisation in Dublin (and elsewhere) almost unbearable
    would be foolish. Perhaps its time to tackle the root of the
    problem instead of attempting ugly quick-fixes.

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