Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Let's all raise a glass to Nelson McCausland and his holy crusade

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland
Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland

If you have any of the Christmas champagne left over (unlikely, I know), what better use of it than to raise a grateful glass to our own dear Social Development Minister, Nelson 'Fun Boy' McCausland?

Because, guess what: if we're very, very good, keep our noses clean and say all our prayers on time, he's promised us a lovely treat. We're going to be allowed to stay up late, half an hour past our bedtimes.

Yes, even though the minister personally espouses the austere virtues of temperance – and is forever sharing doom-and-gloom articles about alcohol abuse on his blog, just to remind the rest of us about the gut-rotting and soul-sapping perils of the demon drink – he's prepared to overlook all that for once and permit pub-goers an extra 30 minutes drinking-up time.

And there's more (oh, Nelson, baby, you really are spoiling us): on very special occasions, he may even consider allowing licensed premises to apply for an extension of late opening to ... wait for it ... 2am. Yes. A whole hour later than usual.

Only on a limited number of nights per year, of course. And the bars and clubs will have to stump up a £1,000 fee each time to pay for all the disgusting social problems that the extra hour of having fun will supposedly cause.

Which means that small pubs – already under severe financial pressure – won't be able to afford to open late at all, because they don't have that kind of money to throw around. But that's only reasonable, isn't it? You can't expect it to be Christmas every day.

Still, I call it a generous move. Never let it be said that Mr McCausland (below) is only interested in his own band of good-living teetotallers and hat-wearing holy rollers.

This shows that he cares about the rest of us, too, even those who like to take a walk on the wild side by staying up late and having a drink with our friends. He has us all under his vast ministerial wing. Compliments of the season to him.

Even Nelson has had to admit that something's got to give, acknowledging that "a modest increase in opening hours may be something worth considering due to the benefits that may be derived to the economy and to the tourism and hospitality sectors".

Exactly: people from normal, civilised countries all over the world (80% of whom will visit a pub during their stay) come here and wonder why the whole place shuts down as soon as the clock strikes 1am.

They find it weird and funny and disappointing and, I expect, slightly disturbing, too. Why is it that people living here are treated like children, who cannot be permitted to stay up late? Can't they be trusted not to go mad and wreck the place?

Minister McCausland has ruled out the possibility (like it was ever even half-way in) of opening hours being brought into line with the rest of the UK and other European jurisdictions.

He doesn't think it's sensible to go down this road, claiming that "restrictions on the sale and supply of alcohol are necessary in the battle against alcohol misuse and its impact on health, crime and anti-social behaviour".

This is symptomatic of the abstentionist mindset: a barrage of dire warnings about the social impact of extreme drinking, when the reality is that the vast majority of punters in Northern Ireland's bars cause no problems to themselves, or anyone else. The minister may as well just issue an edict stating, "drink is evil".

Mr McCausland says he's keen to help the tourism and night-time economies, "but in a way where alcohol may be consumed as part of, but not the focus of, socialising".

And there you get a real glimpse of the desire to control. The implication is that it's okay, as far as Nelson's concerned, if you want to have a glass of wine with your restaurant dinner, but it is definitely not acceptable to head out for a pint or two with your mates.

In maintaining his hostility to having a night out on the tiles, Nelson McCausland is well out of step with public opinion. Ninety-one per cent of respondents to the DSD report on the issue either agreed, or strongly agreed, with the idea of additional late opening hours.

But since when has something as insignificant as the wishes of the people got in the way of a holy crusade?

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