I did not originate the distinction which exists between the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and the rest of the country as regards opening hours on Sunday. It is something which existed in the past and still exists. I want Deputies to get away from the idea that the proposal is one that I, personally, or my Department is responsible for. It is a state of affairs we found in existence. Deputy Daly proposes, by stroke of the pen, to equalise the position, to extend the two-to-five opening hours throughout the country and to put the entire country in the position which these four cities at present occupy with respect to facilities for drinking on Sundays. That is something we are not prepared to do and certainly we are not prepared to do it in this Bill. Whether the suggestion is one worthy of examination with an eye to future legislation is another thing; whether it would not be a good exchange for the complete abolition of thebona fide traffic is a question I would like to see, at any rate, examined and sifted and evidence taken upon it before a Commission. I do propose in the near future to ask a Commission, or if not a Commission, at least a Committee, to be set up under the auspices of my Department, to examine a great many matters in connection with the licensed trade throughout the country. I am particularly anxious for instance, to have examined the possibility of a substantial reduction in the number of licensed houses in the country.
Speaking on the Second Reading of this Bill, I made it clear that we hold the view that there are, perhaps, twice too many licensed houses in the country and that a good many of the excesses and abuses which are thought to exist in connection with the sale and consumption of alcoholic liquor in the country arise from the fact that you have scarcely enough legitimate trade to go round. The struggle for existence in that particular trade is too acute, too keen. There is a scramble for the crumbs secured by illegality and evasion of the law, by plying people with drink long past the stage when they ought to be served with drink. We know how that situation arose. We know how our own honorary justices of the past cut a rod for their own backs and for the backs of the people by a genial, good-natured, and wholly short-sighted fashion, dishing out licences to their friends and neighbours with a minimum of advertence to the real requirements. That was a bad thing and has had a bad reaction, and it shows how the easy course, the good-natured course, the jobbing course, can have bad reactions. Magistrates flocked into these quarterly Licensing Sessions who never turned up to perform their functions at the ordinary Petty Sessions. They flocked into these Sessions to deal out licences haphazard to applicants who had some claim or another upon them, or from whom, perhaps, they had some hope or another. And so we have in this country licensed houses widely out of proportion to the needs of the people and now we must only, at this hour of the day, see how the engines can be reversed and how this short-sighted geniality, good nature and generosity of our honorary magistrates in the past can be remedied.
I would like to see a very thorough examination of that question. I want, at a later stage of this Bill, to paint the particular reaction arising from the fact that we have too many licensed houses in the country. One result was that the newly-fledged publican, having got his licence from his corrupt quarterly Sessions, thought for the first few months that he had struck a gold mine. Gradually he discovered he had not struck a gold mine, and discovered the fact that was apparent to most people at the time, that he was a superfluous entity in that particular trade and that he would find it hard enough to make ends meet. And what happened? He got in a local carpenter to knock up another counter, and he started trading in other commodities to eke out a living for himself and his family. But he was superfluous in both—in the one as in the other. Throughout the last 40 or 50 years you have in this country a steady multiplication of petty distributors and we have to pay for them all. The town that is bearing 40, 50, 60, or 70 of these people to-day is paying for them all and competition is a joke as a factor in ruling prices. There is no competition. Prices are fixed for the weakest link in the chain and the consumer pays.
I have perhaps digressed, but this is one reaction from the basic fact that you have too many, twice too many probably more than twice too many licensed establishments in the country. Now, if we can have that state of affairs examined with a view to finding a remedy it may be that when the numbers are so reduced there will not be this wild scramble for the crumbs and this strong urgent temptation to illegality and abuse. One can do then what one cannot do in the existing state of affairs.
If we could get the licences substantially reduced, if we could ease the struggle for existence in that particular trade, one could do with safety what could not be done with safety now, and one could have a hope, and confidence even, that business would be conducted in a decent way and without the necessity that there is at present for constant police vigilance and supervision. One could hope that the members of the trade would become their own policemen, that they would preserve the decency and the order of their establishments, and not countenance or connive at abuses or evasions of the law. The wholesale extension of this 2 to 5 facility throughout the country at present would, I am convinced, lead to the gravest abuses. You have licensed establishments scattered through the country, many of them miles from a town, and miles from a Gárda station. If you say that, between particular hours on Sunday, these people may sell drink, everyone knows that once the door is opened, and once the crowd is there, there would be no question of leaving at 5 o'clock. It is the youngster in the tree watching the road for the uniform, what is known as the "Cuckoo Boy," you would have. You cannot just take, in a light-hearted way, the step which Deputy Daly and Deputy Davin advocated. You have got to examine its reactions.