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Irish Drunken-Driving Crackdown Threatens ‘National Pastime’

May 8, 1995

KINCASSLAGH, Ireland (AP) _ Ignatius Murray fed fresh coals to the flames and resumed his lonely post behind the bar.

The soggy, bleak Saturday night seemed made for firelit banter in the company of lifelong neighbors, lingering travelers and a bar lined with sweet, creamy pints of slowly settling stout.

But business has gone sour at Iggy’s Pub, a comfortable oasis the size of a living room in a fishing village on Ireland’s far northwestern coast.

``People who’ve come here for years just won’t risk the drive anymore,″ Murray said. ``I don’t know one pub around here that would condone drunken-driving, but this new law ... well, it seems designed to intimidate people in general, not the hard-core abusers of drink, and to put people like me out of business.″

Hundreds of pubs throughout the Irish Republic are feeling the pinch of a lower blood-alcohol limit and higher penalties for people who drive while intoxicated.

Since December, motorists have found themselves running gantlets of traffic cops armed with Breathalyzers on country roads where they may never have seen a police car before.

The maximum blood-alcohol level was dropped from .10 percent to .08, the standard already enforced in most European nations. Violations now mean a certain suspended license, fines up to $1,600 and jail sentences up to six months.

Previously, drivers could refuse to have their breath analyzed when pulled over or to submit blood samples if hospitalized after a wreck. Penalties were invariably lower and at the judge’s discretion _ and in a few notorious cases, even drunks who caused deaths were let off with suspended licenses and probation.

The standard is seen as absurdly low by many Irish drinkers, to whom a gallon of beer means a typical night out.

``Drinking three or four pints is the norm, but now it’s suddenly a crime,″ said John Gorman, downing a Guinness in Bonner’s Pub, a few miles up the road from Iggy’s.

``This law might make sense in America or Europe maybe. But the pub’s the national pastime here,″ said Gorman, a 24-year-old Gaelic football enthusiast.

He can walk home from Bonner’s, but having his traditional few pints after an away game means ``taking a chance if you’re a chancer _ which I am.″

After the initial shock, many drinkers have gradually settled back into old habits. Others have recruited nondrinking designated drivers.

``You do see the guards (police) about, and the fear of getting caught’s still there. But people have passed their judgment on the law, and business is down certainly, but people have adjusted,″ said Joe McFadden, pulling pints at the Gweedore Bar, several miles up the winding road from Iggy’s and Bonner’s.

Ireland’s largest brewer, Guinness PLC, says its business suffered after the change first took effect. But, spokesman Pat Barry said, ``drinking patterns are moving back towards the usual, at least in the urban areas.″

Drunken-driving enforcement has never caught on before in Ireland, where driving tipsy is a tradition. As a consequence, the road-fatality count of 400 to 500 each year is among Europe’s worst per capita _ 12 for every 100,000 people. By contrast, the rate is only 7 per 100,000 in England.

Many publicans and customers say the country’s pot-holed, narrow roads are more to blame for driving deaths.

In January, Murray joined 3,000 pub landlords and beer distributors in a march on the Dail, the Irish parliament. It was an unprecedented show of force from an industry that rakes in the equivalent of $7.5 million a day, two-fifths of it taxes for the government.

Politicians invited protesters in for drinks at taxpayers’ expense.

``They drank the Dail bar dry. They had to be escorted out after they nearly wrecked the place,″ complained Gertie Shields, founder of Ireland’s chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

``You get very cynical watching how things work in this corrupt little country,″ said Mrs. Shields, whose 19-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken truck driver in 1983.

A few weeks after the protest, Environment Minister Brendan Howlin pledged to keep the new blood-alcohol standard, but said punishments would be reduced for drivers whose blood-alcohol level tested between .08 and .15. Parliament is to consider the issue this summer.

Shields, a member of the Pioneers, a Roman Catholic abstinence society, has sworn off alcohol since age 16. But she supports those who drink socially, including her husband and son, so long as they take a taxi home.

``I’ve sat in pubs and had my 7-Up. There’s no shame in it,″ she said. ``Pubs are family places. There’s good food and music. It’s part of Irish life after all.″

Commanders of the Garda Siochana, Ireland’s national police, say they will continue to put up checkpoints randomly along the nation’s roads.

``What we’re deterring is driving under the influence, in common with every country in the Western world. It’s a worthy cause,″ said Chief Superintendent Bernard Haughey, a senior member in the Garda’s Traffic Branch.

Getting home can be tough in rural Donegal, where public transport is poor and hitchhiking is common.

``The catch is, they might well be hitching off someone who’s more full than they are,″ said Charlie Boyle, owner of Bonner’s Pub.

Most of the three dozen people in Bonner’s were plotting how to get to an all-night disco about 20 minutes away by car. Boyle provides a minibus to events on some weekends.

A half-hour past closing time at Iggy’s, Murray chatted with Pat ``Manus″ O’Donnell, who attributes his 90-plus years to regular consumption of alcohol.

O’Donnell recalled stories about his life as a teen-ager during Ireland’s civil war and hard labor in 1930s Scotland; and rattled off his views on the IRA cease-fire, the Bosnian war and the legs of the nurse who visits him from time to time.

What about the drunken-driving law? ``Son, I ne’er learnt to drive,″ he said. ``But you’d have to have plenty of drink in you to see straight down these Donegal roads.″

End adv for Monday, May 15

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