Normal service may have resumed in pubs across the country this weekend but a lot of people are still heading north of the Border in search of their favourite tipple.
In the car park at Asda in Enniskillen at lunchtime on Saturday, every second car seemed to have a southern registration plate, most driven by people who were unapologetic about why they were there.
Darren and Elaine Daly, who had travelled to Co Fermanagh from Dublin, have a family 21st birthday coming up next weekend and confirmed that the alcohol minimum price order introduced on January 4th was a “huge incentive” in their making the trip north.
The couple from Clonee make the trip a few time times a year to shop for everything from soft furnishings to cleaning products, but now plan to make “big savings” on alcohol for their daughter Aimy’s party.
“The beer is about 50 per cent cheaper,” says Darren who predicted that the road north would be busy right through the summer. “I think people spent so much on their homes and gardens during the pandemic that they will be doing a lot more socialising at home, having barbecues and and it makes sense to travel given the price differences.”
Tina and Samantha Coughlan from Co Monaghan believe the reasoning behind the alcohol minimum pricing is ridiculous. “Nothing will stop people with a problem from drinking,” says Samantha.
Her mother Tina remembers a time when droves of bargain hunters from the Republic regularly crossed the Border and she believes that trend is back. They left Asda with 72 beers and a bottle of brandy, having found 12-packs of Budweiser selling at three for £21. The brandy cost £13 and they believe an equivalent bottle would cost €38 at home.
“It was a 45-minute drive and well worth it,” says Tina who reckons the saving on the brandy alone more than covered their fuel costs.
Cameron Giles made the trip from Sligo and expects that many of his friends will do the same, especially for get-togethers during the summer: “It is a no-brainer.”
He says beer and cider are now double the price in the Republic. “It’s outrageous. I don’t know what the Government’s thinking was but it feels like they are making poor people poorer.”
Dublin-based Christy Banks and Claudia Heinze weren’t buying alcohol in Enniskillen on Saturday but said they intended to stock up there before their wedding on August 6th when they would be hosting a lot of visitors. “We will probably spend up to €300 – and save that much by coming here,” says Christy. Claudia says a good bottle of wine costs much the same as it did before January 4th so “they are hurting people without much money”.
Ossie Costello, owner of the Bank Bar and off-licence in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, has mixed feelings about the January 4th price hikes. While he has seen the impact from people driving north, the playing field in the Republic has been levelled. "Before Christmas supermarkets were selling slabs of beer for €15 and I was paying €35-€40 for the same thing. It was crazy."
Many believe the full impact of the minimum pricing order cannot be gauged just yet. “January is always quiet,” says Karl Scollan, owner of the Gala supermarket and off-licence in Drumshanbo. “The Christmas credit card bills are coming and then there is dry January so it is hard to judge yet.”
Costello has no doubt that locals will travel across the Border to stock up for big events like birthday parties. “And you can understand why they would want to save €100 or €150,” he said.
But as a publican, one side of his business may prosper as a result. “I think the bar trade will improve because with prices up in the off-licence, who would want to sit at home with a few cans, looking at the four walls, when you could be in a regulated social environment.”
His customers were jubilant on Saturday night as things returned to normal in the pub. “A man in his 80s who used to sit on his own in the corner, was up at the counter with tears in his eyes last night, just thrilled that he had seen the whole thing through. There is a sense of relief with people delighted that they made it out the other side of this.”