Reform of Northern Irish pub opening hours faces opposition

Both vintners and cleric criticise proposed legislation to liberalise licensing laws

DUP Minister for Communities Paul Givan. His draft Bill would see some alterations to the current pub-opening hours in Northern Ireland

DUP Minister for Communities Paul Givan. His draft Bill would see some alterations to the current pub-opening hours in Northern Ireland

 

An expected proposal to liberalise some of Northern Ireland’s licensing laws has been criticised by both the Northern vintners’ association and a leading Free Presbyterian cleric.

Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster, which represents Northern Ireland’s pubs, hotels and licensed restaurants, complained that the changes are too moderate while the Rev David McIlveen has warned they will further undermine the fabric of Northern society.

The new DUP Minister for Communities, Paul Givan, is expected to publish a draft Bill in the autumn which would see some alterations to the current pub-opening hours.

Under these expected proposals, pubs could open as normal on Holy Thursday, either to 11pm or to 1am.

Pubs that provide entertainment and “substantial” food could apply for extensions to their opening hours until 1am.

Currently all pubs must close by 11pm on the Thursday of Easter Week.

Mr Givan, it is understood, has no plans to change the opening hours of 5pm to 11pm on Good Friday, or the closing times of 11pm on Easter Saturday and 10pm on Easter Sunday.

While pubs close all day on Good Friday in the Republic, they can serve alcohol for six hours in Northern Ireland.

Also under the expected proposals, a new “occasional hours” late licence would allow drink to be sold until 2am on 12 nights each year, with an additional “drinking up time” of an hour. Currently the “drinking up time” is 30 minutes.

Mr Neill of Hospitality Ulster said the proposals were too modest and did not meet the needs of publicans, their customers and the overall growing tourism industry in Northern Ireland.

Mr Neill said his organisation wanted the Minister to allow 2am closing times on two nights each week rather than just 12 times a year.

Pub, restaurant and hotel owners also wanted 1am closing times to operate on Holy Thursday, Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday.

He said that annually over Easter Northern Ireland’s 1,300 pubs, 150 hotels and 550 licensed restaurants lost an estimated £12 million in business.

“We don’t want deregulation but we do need modernisation. We have looked at this from a commercial point of view and from a social point of view and we have been measured. We have not gone asking for 24-hour drinking.

“We have asked for two hours a week extra plus a maximum of five extra hours at Easter. That’s hardly going to set the world on fire,” said Mr Neill.

He rejected the argument put forward by Rev McIlveen that extending opening hours was bad for society and encouraged more drinking.

“We already have 24-hour drinking at home; 70 per cent of alcohol in Northern Ireland is consumed at home.”

He argued that in pubs there was greater control of what customers drink. “At home there are often no measures and no control.”

‘Conflict’

Rev McIlveen accepted in terms of access to alcohol “there was a conflict between the public houses and the off-licences”.

However, he insisted that even a modest liberalisation of opening hours would make the situation worse.

“I am very concerned because I think alcohol is a major problem in our province at this particular time. More and more stories are coming to the fore of how people’s lives have been damaged through alcohol.

“My concern is very much for the individual, for the person whose life sadly has been destroyed through alcohol,” he said.

He rejected the argument that licensing laws needed to be modernised. “We are not modernising society by extending the licensing laws.

“If that were the case we would have corresponding modernising behaviour but we are having that loutish behaviour, that disturbing behaviour. We are also putting pressure on the health service,” added Rev McIlveen.