Does Irish government support driving, or drinking?

October 28, 2009, 1:54 PM

The former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, talking about being in government and holding on to power, once famously remarked that "you get over the big issues, it's the little things that trip you up."

It was a little thing that tripped him up. And it was a little thing that just over a week ago threatened the future of the government here.

It wasn't the bitter division in the country on what to do about our massive budget deficit, with the unions now planning national strikes if the government goes ahead with the planned cutbacks. Having subjected the readers of this column to lessons in national economics for weeks now, we're going to leave discussion of that piece of insanity for another day.

This column is going to be an economics free zone this week. So if it wasn't the crisis in the Irish economy, what was the threat to the government last week?

It was the little matter of drink. Or drinking and driving, to be precise.

The Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey announced to the Fianna Fail party just over a week ago that he was going to change the law to reduce the blood alcohol limit for drivers from 80 mgs to 50 mgs, which would put most people over the limit after just one drink. The proposal was greeted with outrage at a meeting of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party, with up to 25 Fianna Fail backbenchers angrily arguing against the move at the meeting in the Dail (Parliament).

They had put up with the legislation to save the banks which is going to cost taxpayers billions. They had defended the proposed cuts in state spending among their voters. They had swallowed a lot of bitter but necessary economic medicine in the past year.

But this was a step too far. This was so stupid, so ridiculous, so unnecessary at a time when people are putting up with so much grief, they shouted. They threatened to rebel on the vote in the Dail, to bring the government down if necessary.

And Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen and his government, who now have a fragile majority, decided to find a way out. Having been through so much in the past year and with so many major decisions of national importance ahead, there was no way Cowen was going to let a "little thing" like drink put his government in jeopardy.

So, leaving his high-minded minister for transport looking red-faced, he told the next Dail meeting that, while everyone was in favor of measures to reduce road deaths, there was a need for coordination with Northern Ireland, where the limit is still 80 mgs. The whole thing would have to be planned.

Or in other words, you can expect no change in the law here any time soon, and certainly not for the next year or more. So that took care of that "little thing."

Predictably, of course, the politically correct lobby here went crazy. There were outraged editorials in the papers decrying the government's weakness.

There were figures from "scientific" studies showing that lowering the blood alcohol level further would definitely save lives. There were accusations that it was the backwoods deputies from the rural areas who had sunk this most desirable change.

What there was not to be found anywhere in the media was a voice to stick up for the backwoodsmen, to say that Cowen (a bogman known to enjoy a pint) might be right.

Well, here's one bogtrotter who's not afraid to speak out. In the vast majority of cases, it's not alcohol that kills people on the roads, it's speed.

The idea that someone is not fit to drive after one drink -- or even two drinks -- is nonsense, as long as that person drives slowly and carefully. But, of course, saying that is heresy to the politically correct brigade, for whom the world is black and white.

They will cite you endless studies and statistics showing that alcohol impairs judgment of distance, vision, coordination, reaction time, spatial awareness, a sense of responsibility and so on. And they are correct. It does.

But the question is, by how much? In the black and white world of the politically correct, even asking the question is offensive.

But the fact is that low levels of alcohol have low levels of effect on judgment. As long as you are careful, you concentrate, and you do not drive fast, most adults can drive perfectly safely after one -- or even two -- drinks.

I know many people in the part of the bog I come from in the middle of Ireland who do exactly that. They are the older farmers who live out in the country a few miles from their local village pub, often their only social contact in the week besides the church on Sunday.

They used to come in to the pub one or two nights a week, have a pint or two and a cigarette or two, and then drive home very carefully at 30 mph. Because they had a pint or two, they drove with extra care and caution, and very few of them had accidents.

But that was before we all went mad with political correctness and health fascism. Now the old guys are too afraid to come out in case they are caught driving after a couple of pints and are put off the road. And of course they can't smoke in a pub.

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