Smiles and nerves as lockdown lifts in Northern Ireland

Some publicans complain regulations for outdoor customers are too strict

As the Taoiseach was raising the possibility of “indoor pints” by the end of July, the prospect of outdoor pints this bank holiday weekend was by no means certain for many people north of the Border, despite expectations.

With the North a few steps ahead of the Republic when it comes to emerging from lockdown, something that was certain to cause jealousy in the Republic were reports that beer gardens were opening in Northern Ireland on Friday.

But Michael Cadden from Pat’s Bar, which faces the town hall in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, had to scupper his reopening plans at the 11th hour. And he seemed doubtful if many pubs in the town would pass what he regarded as the overly stringent interpretation of legislation introduced in 2007 to govern smoking areas.

Cadden said that 24 hours before his staff were due to roll up their sleeves, he got a visit from the authorities who told him that most of his beer garden was not acceptable. “It’s just infuriating because it is coming from someone sitting behind a desk who knows nothing about the industry,” said the director of Hospitality Ulster.


In fact, so little of Cadden’s premises was regarded as complying with the rules, the businessman who spent more than £10,000 (€11,500) getting ready to reopen said it would not be feasible to proceed for now because he could cater for so few customers.

“It’s not new legislation, it’s just a very literal interpretation of legislation that has been there for 14 years,” he said.

With the North’s Department of Health advising that outdoor premises should not be more than 50 per cent enclosed, debate is rife among publicans about whether erecting a roof to ensure customers are not soaked to the skin is a breach of the rules.

Damien Hanna from Molly’s Bar in Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh, also had to abandon his reopening plan. So little of his beer garden was deemed acceptable that he reckoned he would not be able to cover the staffing and heating costs if proceeding.

Hanna covered his beer garden last July, saying he did it to ensure his customers were comfortable, with no objections from anyone in authority until now. “There’s an 80 per cent chance of rain tomorrow and 90 per cent on Sunday,” he said on Friday. “Should we be open to the elements?”

But there were many smiling faces throughout towns and cities in the North following the easing of restrictions there, with hundreds of people queuing from early morning outside Primark stores in Derry and Belfast .

However, in Enniskillen, more than one local remarked that “the shops will still be here tomorrow” as many people opted instead to linger over their first coffee in months in the company of friends outside a cafe.

Outside Rebecca’s cafe in the Buttermarket, several groups of colleagues were getting together for the first time in months as their workplaces reopened .

A group of employees from SD Kells, a family-owned clothing store, occupied one picnic table and joked they were spending their first coffee break in months gossiping about colleagues left minding the shop.

Sharon Morrison, who has been running the cafe for 20 years, said: “There is now light at the end of the tunnel although you can see that people still have worries”.

In the Erneside shopping centre, security staff laughed when asked if there was a queue when they opened up. “There were only about three or four here at nine o’clock,” said one employee.

Unimpressed by pyjamas queue

An early customer was Margaret Gallagher (79) who lives near Belcoo, in a thatched cottage which is something of a tourist attraction. She was less than impressed by those who rose at dawn to queue in Belfast “for pyjamas”.

“I would not be buying drapery”, she said. “This is great for the economy but it will do no good if there is another lockdown. I think people have to realise that the pandemic is here for a long time.”

Busker Liam “Hippy” Johnston, from his perch outside Pat’s Bar, has observed how those glad to be out and about again remain wary. “There are a lot of nervous people around.”

He revealed that busking had actually been more lucrative than usual during the lockdown. “I think a lot of people were just glad to hear a bit of music.”

Fiona Maguire from Blooming Lovely florists admitted she was “a wee bit nervous” opening her doors for the first time since December, but felt a welcome buzz in town.

“Its lovely to see the sun shining and everyone out and about. It was even nice to see a traffic jam.”

The Lisnaskea woman has been doing contactless deliveries in recent months and noticed some interesting trends. “We have had a lot of students buying flowers for their teachers, maybe to say thank you for helping them during lockdown, or maybe to try and get better marks!”

She has been inundated with orders for weddings for the rest of the year and for next year, but it’s not all about the brides. “A lot of our orders this year were for mammies from their children living abroad who have not seen them for a while.”