Belfast Telegraph

Revellers slumped on the streets, pools of vomit and police arrests... Just another quiet Friday night out in Belfast

Restrictive licensing laws lead to disturbing scenes like these as pubs and clubs empty at 1am

BY DAVE WHELAN

Pools of vomit, a screaming woman lying on the ground surrounded by police and revellers slumped with heads hanging.

And that's Belfast on a quiet night.

The Belfast Telegraph took to the pubs and clubs of the city over the weekend in a bid to gauge the pressure put on emergency and voluntary services by the worrying binge drinking culture that has developed amongst young revellers.

We arrived at Bradbury Place on an extremely wet and windy evening, which despite making the streets much quieter than usual, didn't deter a number of women from casting off their high-heeled shoes and walking around barefoot.

Among those who went to the aid of stricken drinkers was Joe Highland, chief executive of the SOS Bus NI charity, who was on hand on Friday night as customers began spilling on to the streets.

He believes young people in Northern Ireland have developed an unhealthy culture of "excessive pre-loading" on a night out.

Over 1,000 people visit the tightly congested pubs and clubs in Bradbury Place on an average Friday night, with this figure more than doubling on Saturday night.

Restrictive licensing laws in Northern Ireland mean that every weekend thousands of people pour out on to the streets of Belfast, as many pubs and clubs close at the same time, leading to a huge strain on taxi, medical and police services.

This pressure was evident on Friday with police having to make a number of visits to the same area, as well as maintaining a constant patrol throughout the night.

One 34-year-old woman was arrested after she had to be restrained by a number of police officers after she was forced from a well-known nightclub. She could be heard screaming as she lay face down on the ground in a light dress and no shoes, and had earlier been seen stumbling in the street before she started to shout and hit out at police officers.

"The vast majority of people heading out to the city centre for a drink over the weekend are decent, honest people out for a good time, who will arrive and leave without ever drawing any attention to themselves," said Joe.

"What gets highlighted to the public is the minority of, what we call, 'troubled' people who drink to excess and do come out to cause problems, and worryingly that percentage of people is growing."

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Drunken revellers caught on camera last Friday night in Shaftesbury Square, Belfast

Joe said there was a strong correlation in figures between the 70% of alcohol that was sold in Northern Ireland supermarkets, and the 80% of people attending A&E departments at weekends through drug and drink issues.

Pools of vomit at each end of the street and the number of slumped heads in fast-food outlets around midnight, painted all too clearly a picture of how 'pre-loading' was having an impact on city night-life.

"How we consume alcohol and the message we are passing on to our children is a huge problem in our society. The pub culture is eroding and with it the social bonds that people build.

"The current generation is missing out on learning how to interact and behave when out in a social scene, and as a result we see young people staying in the house later, where there are no financial or measured restraints, and arriving to the city centre already too intoxicated," added Joe.

The extent of the 'pre-loading' culture came to the fore after a major incident was declared during a recent music concert at the Odyssey Arena, where youths as young as 14 years old had to be taken to hospital and others given medical attention for drug and alcohol abuse, after they arrived at the venue heavily intoxicated.

On Friday night, police confirmed they had attended a number of minor incidents in the Bradbury Place area, although only one arrest was made, with the 34-year-old woman being charged with assault on police, disorderly behaviour and resisting police.

A doorman with more than 20 years' experience, who did not want to be identified, said that young people arriving later and drunker was a recurring theme.

"I have no doubt that this area is a much safer place than it was 15 or 20 years ago. A constant police presence at peak times and advanced CCTV monitoring has ensured that. That's not to say that there isn't occasional trouble in the area, with so many people all consuming alcohol in a condensed area.

"As door staff we can only do our best to be vigilant and check for signs of excessive alcohol or underage drinking and refuse them entry.

"The time to come out into the city centre is getting later and later as people stay in their house and have a few drinks before coming out, to save some money.

"That's nothing new, but more and more often we are seeing youngsters in their teens and early twenties arriving in states that are too drunk for the end of the night, never mind the beginning.

"Often what you'll find is that they are the ones that cause trouble. They'll hang around after a few places have refused them and they'll aim to spoil someone else's night and yet when the police are called it looks like they've stumbled out of one of our premises."

Taxi driver Fra McCaffrey said pre-loading had always been popular among students, but had become a more widespread problem since people started feeling the pinch of the recession.

"Whereas before a Friday and Saturday night would have been constant, now I don't really get going until around 11pm," he said.

"Kids are getting into your car and you know that they've had a bottle of spirits or a few bottles of wine in them before they even get to the club.

"That has a knock-on effect when it gets to around 1am and everywhere empties at once and people scramble to get taxis.

"You literally have people flooding out on to the roads and jumping on your car. How someone isn't knocked down and killed in this area always baffles me."

The SOS Bus is an independent charity that relies on the generosity of volunteers and donations.

If you would like to volunteer you can contact them on 028 9066 4505, to donate go to www.justgiv ing.com/sosbusni, or text SOSB28 plus the amount (eg £5) to 70070.

FACTFILE

Current licensing laws in Northern Ireland permit the sale of alcohol until 1am, a time considered restrictive in comparison to the rest of the UK and Europe.

Licensing laws passed in the rest of the UK – in an attempt to deter binge-drinking – were made flexible to cater for a number of different venues including pubs, clubs and entertainment venues, effectively staggering the times that people leave different venues.

The opening hours of clubs in other major European cities, include 4.30am in Edinburgh and Glasgow, 2.30am in Dublin, and between 4am and 6am in Paris and London.

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Drunken revellers caught on camera last Friday night in Shaftesbury Square, Belfast

What they said

The revellers

"We've been waiting for a taxi now for close to an hour. We had a really good night up until now but it's the same everywhere, once the night's over you face standing in the freezing cold trying to get home. We tried getting a taxi when we came outside but nowhere would answer their phones and all the ones lined up outside were booked.

"We've been in for something to eat to try and stay warm and we've still had no joy. It's not exactly heels and dress weather out here but you can't wear a hat and gloves out either. This time of night is usually when fights break out and we just want to get home."

The taxi driver

"I hate having to go into the city centre at closing time but it's part of the job. The law is that we can't pick up a fare unless they've previously booked so you're being sent in to these swarms of people throwing money at you to take them.

"I don't blame them for trying to get home but we can't lift them and that's when people start to get angry. Just last weekend a guy punched both my windscreens.

"If it's not people jumping out in front of you while you're driving, it's someone being abusive. The fact is that licensing laws put the majority of people out on the streets at the same time and it's too much for services like taxis, police and medical services to deal with all at once. If licensing hours in Belfast were to be staggered, we wouldn't have half of the problems we deal with."

The doorman

"We operate in one of the busiest parts of the city centre so we see all walks of life on a nightly basis. At the weekend the crowd swells and we've a quality team of professional door staff.

"I think that it's important to point out that the vast majority of people come out to have a good night socialising, they're polite, and come and go with next to no trouble.

"It's the minority that cause trouble. As door staff we can only do our jobs. We're vigilant to stopping people who have had too much and we check IDs to prevent underage drinking.

"There will always be a few that slip through the net. You grow weary of places getting a bad name because as people pass by they see a crowd of drunks or an angry punter outside but the fact is that they are there because we are doing our job and stopping them getting in."

The volunteer

"I've been working with NightLife for close to three years now. We're a Christian group across a range of churches and we have teams in the city centre.

"We don't preach, we're just here to show people that someone cares. We try to help people that have had too much into taxis and get people home safely. The majority of people are merry, stop for a chat and are out to enjoy themselves. However, occasionally we do come across people that don't know their limits. Often they've arrived already too drunk and their friends have left them to fend for themselves. That's worrying.

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