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Ireland: Prime Minister hints at change to restrict the sale of alcohol

The Irish Prime Minister, Mr Bertie Ahern, has given indications that new laws to restrict the sale of alcohol in supermarkets and garage forecourts may be in place before the summer.

Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI) welcomed Mr Ahern's comments, even though it said his government had brought about the legislation that increased the availability of alcohol.

Marion Rackard, AAI Executive Director, said Mr Ahern now needed to show "political courage" in dealing with "our number one health and social problem" in the same way as his persistence and actions had an influence on the quality of life for families in Northern Ireland.

Dr Joe Barry, a public health doctor and a member of the strategic taskforce on alcohol, said it was encouraging that Mr Ahern had taken a personal interest in the issue. But he said that Taoiseach, in 2003, had also said the government would legislate to control the marketing of alcohol "but they didn't do that so the devil can be in the detail. There is a big move from announcements to action.”

Rolande Anderson, Alcohol Project Director of the Irish College of General Practitioners, said alcohol abuse was one of the biggest social problems today and that leadership on the issue was badly needed. "So it is good he is making public comments on it and we look forward to action being taken," he said.

Speaking to reporters in Dublin yesterday, Mr Ahern was keen to emphasise the scale of the alcohol problem and the "quick" response that was required. Somewhat unusually, he specified the areas the government will address in legislation, ahead of the publication of a report that Justice Minister Brian Lenihan commissioned from a special advisory group on alcohol. The group, chaired by solicitor Gordon Holmes, is expected to report at the end of March with recommendations on the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Ahead of the report, Mr Ahern made no secret of the fact that the Government will pursue restrictive legislation in the most urgent areas, as soon as the group concludes its work. "This report will be finished at the end of the month. We will move on the areas that we can quickly. Minister Lenihan is determined we move on those very quickly," he said.

Mr Ahern said that while the volume of alcohol in pubs had fallen, there had been a corresponding rise of sales in off- licences. He also expressed concern about the increase in late-night permits being used.

"New research has shown that despite all the things we have done on drink driving and the fact that the licensed trade - the actual pub trade - is considerably down, the proportion of [ consumption] is well up," Ahem noted. He then added, "What is clear is that what's happening in the garage forecourts, what's happening in the supermarket, what's happening in the off-licence generally is leading to an excessive amount of alcohol being available.”

Mr Ahern did qualify his remarks somewhat: "This isn't against drink. I am not against social drinking. I'm not against people enjoying themselves. If you are into that agenda, you are going nowhere," he said.