Talking Trade

Bart Storan – veteran young warhorse

This is a particularly busy time for Bart Storan, the  DIGI’s Manager for the ‘Support Your Local…” campaign. He can’t meet me on Fridays or Mondays - that’s when TDs can be found in their constituencies. And that’s when they’ll find Bart Storan and company on their doorstep, setting the picture straight about the drinks industry. Between presentations and lobbying he’s been more or less permanently on the road of late…. Oh - and two weeks ago he and his wife had twins…..

It’s all been a wee bit of a rollercoaster ride for the former organiser of the campaign for Childrens’ Rights and current Campaign Manager for ‘Support Your Local…’ Bart Storan.

But he has form.

Following his Masters in Human Rights Bart moved to West Africa, working with former child soldiers before returning home to participate in the Lisbon Treaty campaign.

He followed this up by working with Amnesty in Ireland and then ran a highly successful campaign in getting Stephen Donnelly elected as a TD.

Now he’s consumed by the drink…. Perhaps I could put it more delicately – but clearly he feels strongly about the industry and the on-trade, believing it to be a very positive reflection of our national character and reflective of a national culture too.

“For me, the opportunity to go in and shape industry policy around alcohol abuse was a big draw,” confesses the self-admitted ‘numbers man’ who sees the present policy on excise as a lazy response to alcohol abuse.

Lately, lobbying activity comprises three meetings every Monday and Friday every week for the net three weeks, where he brings in small businesses in the industry – “basically entrepreneurs” – to meet TDs.

“I’ve tried to emphasise throughout the campaign that the drinks industry is not a multi-billion euro corporation. Some 65,000 of the jobs here are in small businesses such as pubs.”


Alcohol producers

On a grander scale, what surprises him about ‘alcohol producers’ is their genuine commitment to tackle abuse.

“Obviously they want to sell alcohol but they don’t want their products abused.”

Their commitment to help small businesses also surprises him. Bodies like the Irish Whiskey Association and brands like Jameson are “full-on” in helping small distributors get off the ground. They see this as helping grow the category generally.


‘Support Your Local….’

Bart believes a diminution of the role of people in the drinks industry has taken place here.

‘Support Your Local…’ is clearly aimed at policy makers around the Budget and at general consumers but also at “people within the industry, to give them a vehicle with which to talk passionately about the field they work in.

“People felt ashamed that they worked in the alcohol industry. They felt a need to apologise for this but the campaign has allowed them show that they’re committed to quality, craft and employment etc.

“The campaign seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of the industry to the general public.

“Fáilte Ireland doesn’t talk about distilleries, breweries and pubs in the way we think they should,” he says.

This oft-called for ‘forwardness’ by the drinks industry has been a long tine in coming, agrees Bart.

“We made a conscious effort to set the tone and narrative for this,” he adds, “We got hammered with three tax increases in a row.”

And this ‘line in the sand’ may have fired the industry into action, he believes.

“We’re business people, we’re proud of the products we produce and we’re going to start saying so.”

The campaign spent a lot of time highlighting the Drinks-related employment in Dáil constituencies 2013 report, the ‘Constituency Report’.

“We were operating at the time of the local and European elections” he explains, “so we inserted ourselves into that narrative and it became useful around Budget time too.”


Excise questions

The Irish Times’ Mark Paul recently took the call to cut excise to task, stating that it was of little benefit to retailers, only producers, that anexcise cut would be a “blunt instrument that would stimulate minimal extra demand and employment in individual establishments where it’s needed most.”

Bart finds this view interesting, “…but the central point that excise doesn’t affect pubs is incorrect,” he asserts, “Tax increases over last three years have added 28 cent to price of the pint, a cost that consumers have criticised publicans for.”

He can see that an excise reduction of itself will not save the on-trade, “… but it’s one of the few levers that the Government can utlilise to positively affect the on-trade in the short term”.


Alcohol abuse

Compared to the alternatives, publicans have risen up through the ranks in terms of protecting people from alcohol abuse.

“As far as TDs are concerned, they see that the pub is one of the safer environments in which to drink.

“There’s a challenge for us in that there has been a dramatic shift to the off-trade. A lot of that is price-driven but some of it is culture-driven.

“So it requires everyone coming together and to some extent the campaign has provided that forum,” he believes.

He points out too that it’s not just young people who tend to binge-drink.

“Overall consumption of alcohol has dropped by 25% since 2001,” he points out, “The way we drink is the problem and will probably need to be the next item to be addressed – but it’s a really complicated issue to try and address and we need to be realistic about how we go about that. Increasing excise is not going to stop people binge-drinking but is probably going to push them farther into the supermarkets.”

All in all, it’s time for a ‘grown-up’ conversation about alcohol abuse in this country.

He believes that the opportunity is now there with the new Minister for Health who seems quite pragmatic in his view.

“He wants to take an action-based approach and the first step towards figuring this out has got to be talking to one another.

“We need to get stakeholders throughout the industry and the medical profession to buy into a long-term plan.”


Pub outlook

He sounds a note of optimism for the pub. Focus groups run by the campaign found that people still like the pub.

“There’s something special about the pub and it’s not necessarily the drink that’s special. I think drinking has changed forever in that people now quite like a bottle of wine with Netflix. That was not here 10 years ago nor was the present level of home-drinking.”

To illustrate this he points out that in 1999 the on-trade was responsible for 60% of alcohol sales.By last year it had flipped and that was now the off-trade’s share.

“The on-trade will never die but is undergoing a lot of changes to overcome the pressures, thus the rise of pub food.

“The pubs have not inserted themselves into the tourism offering as they should have,” he asserts, “That’s part of what people associate with Ireland, the drinks industry’s rich heritage.”

And in this, he believes that foreigners don’t envisage the ‘drunk Paddy’ image as much as we do ourselves.

“I think the drinks sector will become a very important part of industry going forward whether it’s whiskey, the pubs or The Guinness Storehouse.”

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