In 2005, then minister for justice Michael McDowell put forward proposals to reform Ireland’s alcohol licensing laws. McDowell argued that the effective monopoly held by publicans over the sale and consumption of alcohol in public spaces, originally imposed in a different era to inhibit excessive consumption and abuse, was actually contributing to contemporary societal problems such as binge-drinking.
As an economic liberal, he believed that breaking that monopoly was not just a good thing in itself but would encourage the development of a European-style “café culture”, where moderate drinking took place alongside dining, and where customers would have a wider choice of where to spend their evenings.
History records that McDowell's project failed. This week, as Minister for Tourism, Culture and Arts Catherine Martin unveils proposals for reviving and supporting Ireland's night-time economy, it's worth recalling how and why that happened.
This is one of the occasions, by the way, when her unwieldy portfolio makes sense. Hospitality, tourism, entertainment, live performance and culture are all intertwined with and dependent on a vibrant night-time sector, which in turn depends on sympathetic and appropriate regulation and licensing laws. Too often, though, these decisions are made at the behest of powerful lobbies rather than in the public interest.
Reflecting on his own experience, the former minister and Progressive Democrats leader (a regular contributor to this newspaper) described a "total disconnect between opinion in Leinster House and the views of the people of Ireland".
Compared with McDowell, Martin, a likely future leader of the Green Party, is a different politician with a different set of objectives at a different time, but she might want to take note.
The events of the past summer have revealed the enduring power of the pub and restaurant lobbies, compared with the arts and live entertainment sectors
“The outcome says an awful lot about the ‘real Ireland’ as distinguished from the ‘imagined, aspirational Ireland’ that might have happened and indeed might still happen,” McDowell writes, describing how “the vintners’ lobby went into overdrive. TDs’ clinics were visited throughout the land. TDs were told that the café bar would ‘destroy the family pub’, proliferate drinking, and lead to chaos and crime in every corner of the country. ‘Publican pressure’ surged. Fianna Fáil mutated from the ‘republican party’ to the ‘publican party’. Fine Gael hotly attacked the idea. So did Labour and – wait for it – the Greens.”
Sixteen years is a long time. Much has changed, including social habits around alcohol, with a shift to off-sales, a decline in per capita consumption and a precipitous decline in the value of licences.
But the events of the past summer have revealed the enduring power of the pub and restaurant lobbies, compared with the arts and live entertainment sectors. Correspondence published in The Irish Times this week under Freedom of Information legislation reveals the deep frustration expressed by Martin in late July and early August as she sought even an acknowledgment – much less a meeting – with Cabinet colleagues and medical authorities over the failure to use Covid passes to develop a viable reopening plan for theatres, cinemas and music venues.
“As you know,” she wrote to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, “I have made repeated calls to Cabinet colleagues stressing the importance of clarity for reopening within the arts and culture sector, and subsequently I have explored every possible channel via officials in order to have a reopening plan prioritised and developed with urgency. This process has become unnecessarily stalled and I cannot stand by when a sector, which supports 35,000 jobs and is intrinsic to Ireland’s societal identity and wellbeing, is being treated unjustifiably with inequity.”
Our arcane, random and highly expensive licensing laws act as a barrier to entry for anyone trying to open a club, establish a venue or just reimagine a new use for an empty space
It would be several more weeks before the Government extended the use of vaccination passes from pubs to live entertainment venues. It’s still not clear why this was the case, but the contrast between the treatment of the two sectors is glaring.
The report released by Martin on Wednesday is not all about alcohol licensing. It includes many proposals which have been circulating for years among those who advocate for a more sympathetic and progressive approach to the night-time economy.
Those proposals gain added urgency as cities and towns seek to recover from a shutdown that has laid bare the failures of planning in the form of vacant buildings, shuttered shopfronts and empty streets.
But our arcane, random and highly expensive licensing laws act as a barrier to entry for anyone trying to open a club, establish a venue or just reimagine a new use for an empty space.
Those laws don’t fall under Martin’s brief. Minister of State at the Department of Justice Hildegarde Naughton, announcing plans for legislation by next year, said much of it would “build on work that was done in the early 2000s as part of an effort to reform licensing laws there”.
Which seems to be exactly where we came in.