In a country where alcohol is deeply ingrained into society and consumption levels are among the highest per capita in the world, how does a youth organization manage the complex relationship with and negotiate the considerable grey areas around alcohol and Scouting?
Ireland has long had a seemingly inextricable cultural connection with the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
ETCHED INTO OUR HISTORY
The origins of whiskey are disputed (whisky, if you are talking about the scotch variety), but one viewpoint is that the drink was created first in Ireland. Our Scottish friends might disagree with this theory, but either way, distilleries have been present on the island for hundreds of years.
One of the more famous stouts in the world originated first from Dublin (Lucan but later and most famously of all, from some premises at St James Gate), even though today it is merely a declining brand name in the pages of the annual reports of a British conglomerate.
A blend of whiskey and fresh cream, concocted in the 1980’s, with a name dreamed up in London by a UK advertising agency, has similarly come to encapsulate all that is Irish for consumers scattered across the world.
Per capita consumption of alcohol in Ireland is the second highest in the World. Whilst consumption of spirits generally in developed markets has been flat or declining in recent years, this category is growing fast in Ireland (and the UK), as the purveyors of vodka in particular have managed to tap into the lucrative, if fickle ‘yoof’ market.
Sometimes associated with social problems lower down the socio-economic scale, alcohol has in fact been enjoying higher consumption levels among wealthier and older consumers too (and those ‘social problems’ are in fact by no means a respecter of social class). Alcohol levels in wine have increased along with the choice and it is not only ‘slabs’ of cheap beer that fly off the supermarket shelves at the weekend; wines and spirits are also selling increasingly well, driven in part by ever lower pricing.
By the time a young person in Ireland is aged eleven, 66% have tried alcohol. By the age of fourteen, 45% of young people are consuming it on at least a fortnightly basis.
Clubs and pastimes that offer young people opportunities to develop mentally, physically, socially and in other ways (such as Scouting), offer a welcome distraction from the seemingly ever-earlier indoctrination into the (adult driven) culture of alcohol that is so prevalent in Ireland.
The adult population habitually wrings their hands about ‘young people’ developing an alcohol habit, yet adults drive and participate in the culture that see’s no sporting or music event (for example) devoid of heavy advertising and promotion for drinks brands.
Whilst successive governments fret about the costs of managing alcohol related diseases, accidents (and the casual violence publicly and domestically it can sometimes trigger), the impetus to take decisive steps to curb the nation’s thirst is undermined in part by the high tax yields from the sale of beers, wines, spirits. The very effective lobbying by the drinks industry probably does not help either.
BEER AND BILLYCANS?
But exactly what sort of relationship does Scouting have with alcohol? It is a regular (and prominent) feature of significant events such as the wider National Council conference. Not the formal meeting itself, obviously (although looking at the agenda some years might prompt members to say ‘hold that thought’…) At the social precursor to the Scouters conference, alcohol is also featured. Both National Council and the Scouters Conference are attended by large numbers of young people.
Even major camping events for youth members such as jamborees, will often include opportunities for adults to enjoy a drink, sometime onsite (and almost always offsite too).
Assuming it is reasonable for scouters taking young people abroad for Summer Camp, to get some downtime (summer camps usually consume up to HALF the annual holiday allocation of the average scouter after all) and assuming that downtime might include a beer in a local pub on one or more occasions over the course of a ten to fourteen night event (presumably in shifts, with adequate adult supervision on hand for the youth members), then one can assume that alcohol features at many significant events run by local scout groups too.
Everything from Christmas Parties to Parent Cheese & Wine evenings can often feature a mix of alcohol and young people. It is so ingrained into Irish society; it may not even be apparent sometimes quite how all pervading it is.
So what impact does this ongoing, albeit partial flirtation with alcohol have on the youth members of Scouting? There is no doubt that young people are heavily influenced by the behavior of adults and all the more so by the behavior of adults they know well and trust /look up to.
Yet by the same token, adults drive cars, get married and vote – just three activities that can create legal difficulties for people below a specified age, should they wish to pursue them – and nobody would seriously suggest that scouters abstain from those activities.
LEGAL GREY SPOT
The law in Ireland clearly states that it is illegal to purchase alcohol if you are a person less than 18 years of age. It is also illegal to purchase alcohol FOR a person aged below 18.
The relevant Irish legislation relating to the serving of alcohol in licensed premises, the buying of alcoholic drinks in off-licences and drinking alcohol in public places is the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008, Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003, Intoxicating Liquor Act 2000, the Licensing Act, 1872 and the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994.
However, whilst the law may be clear in terms of purchase and sale of alcohol, it veers into a grey area when it comes to consumption. Equally, whilst it is reasonable to assume that most people aged below 13 rarely, if ever consume alcohol, research indicates that after this age, quite a lot of people are familiar with it and consume it with increasing regularity. What are the implications of this trend for Scouting and for scouters, particularly in the context of overnight (and overseas) activities, sometimes lasting for one week or longer?
CARROT (JUICE) OR STICK?
Quoting the law and enforcing a blanket ban on consumption is the logical solution. Securing parental consent to this approach and incorporating a ‘zero tolerance’ policy (with transgressors sent home immediately from camp, at parents expense) is one clear way to handle the issue.
However those of us who know teenagers well (and anyone who used to be one and can remember it) will understand that if there is one way to guarantee that a teen will try do something, it is to ban it outright.
Some scout groups and teams of scouters have traditionally taken a view that above a certain age (for example 16 or 17), it can be the lesser of two evils in particular when on overseas expeditions, to facilitate the responsible consumption of certain types of alcoholic beverages (for example beer) as part of a meal and accompanied by adults, some of whom abstain completely from alcohol for that occasion, others who imbibe.
The argument here is that it is better for alcohol consumption among older adolescents to take place in the company of adults and in responsible quantities, thus fostering a culture of responsibility around the consumption of alcohol, in a society where ‘binge drinking’ (four or more units of alcohol in a single sitting) is increasingly common.
This approach naturally requires parental alignment and consent. It also assumes a strong working relationship and high level of trust and understanding between scouters and parents, plus a high level of trust and understanding between scouters and youth members.
The potential drawback to this approach, informed in part by the greyness of the legal situation, is as a senior Garda outlined to the irish scouter one evening; “there’s never a problem with this sort of thing… until there is a problem”.
A scouter who encounters an issue with alcohol concerning youth members, but had no prior knowledge of it, and did not facilitate or condone it, is arguably ‘problem free’ in terms of not having to explain any radical initiatives that skirt around the edges of the law, should anyone complain. That will not be quite as cut and dried in a situation where beer has been on the menu around the campfire.
The ideal scenario when it comes to alcohol and scouting really seems to come down to the same common denominator as a lot of other things in scouting (and in life); Lead by example.
There can be recognition by scouters that some youth members in their care consume alcohol at home, perhaps even frequently. There can equally be an understanding that for this to happen (for example) whilst on summer camp in a foreign country could put the leaders in a very difficult position and potentially undermine the reputation of the group and damage relationships within.
This realization may require some exploration and debate to take place and it will depend on just how strong the bonds are in the group and what sort of standing the scouters are held in by the members.
(In this instance, it is assumed that such conversations would be had with Venture Scouts and Rover Scouts and not so much Scouts)
Most young people, when treated with respect and courtesy are reasonable. The mutual respect and affinity between Scouters and Scouts of any age can be strong and can create the conditions whereby it is understood that Scout Camp has different rules to home.
In this context however, the idea of self-abstaining youth can be fatally undermined if the scouter team are conspicuously enjoying the very beverages that they have asked their young charges to eschew.
There can be an acceptance that a scouter works long, hard days on camp and does so in his or her free time, usually out of a precious holiday allocation. A nightcap beer up the road from the site every second night is not the same thing as a nightly session.
For weekend camps and activities, it could be argued that a scouter who wishes to imbibe the demon drink might be better off skipping camp completely and jumping on a bus into town instead. Why not wait until camp is over and then enjoy a beer with the adult team on the Sunday evening?
That said, the irish scouter has many good friends in a well-established and exceptionally well run, family orientated scout group for whom camping has become a truly glamorous activity. Salmon sandwiches, roast joints, crockery (yes crockery – not enamel or plastic) and the odd bottle of Bordeaux for scouters to enjoy, is a feature certainly of Cub Scout and Scout activities.
There is a credible argument that scouters, by enjoying a glass of wine over a ‘leaders’ dinner, in full view of the scouts, in some ways normalize the concept of alcohol in moderation.
In French society, it is common for kids from about age 12 to drink a small glass of wine (often with some water added) at formal dinners with their parents. Alcoholism, violence from alcohol and chronic diseases drive by alcohol consumption are far, far lower in France than they are in Ireland or the UK.
Perhaps one of the attractions of alcohol in Ireland to a young person is the fact that adults go to such enormous lengths to prevent access to it?
A few years ago, a venture group (members were all aged 17) went abroad and sourced some low alcohol beer to be consumed as and when the members wished to do so. The cases of beer sat in the dining tent and were enjoyed on an ad-hoc basis (and generally in moderation) by the members.
One member went overboard one night, but was chastised by the other youth members the next day, without any scouter intervention. Moderation prevailed and no further issues of this type occurred.
The real problem did not manifest itself until the group returned home and were evaluating the expedition. “We did very little” was a common theme in the discussion. What had happened was different members consumed a beer or two at different times. The canoeing was cancelled because on that day, four members had consumed beer over lunch and thus could not go canoeing, eliminating the quorum.
A cultural visit was passed over because several members were feeling a little lethargic after a beer with dinner. The evening hike that had seemed like a great idea over breakfast lost its appeal as the sun began setting and a bottle of beer was enjoyed. The following year, the group (by now all aged 18) elected to abstain from alcohol for the full duration of camp. The scouters barring one evening, (which was aligned/agreed with the ventures), did likewise. The expedition was action-packed and a huge success.
As the summer camp season gets fully underway, the irish scouter wishes everyone good camping.
Image at top of article from the website talktofrank.com