Belfast Telegraph

Ludicrous Easter booze laws would drive you to drink

By Fionola Meredith

It's the Easter holidays and I'm going out for lunch today. A nice family get-together. You know, all of us enjoying the chance to kick back and catch up with one another. And do you know what I'd really fancy to go along with my meal? A lovely cold glass of sauvignon blanc. French, for preference, though New Zealand would do. But I may whistle for it, for I won't be getting my wine.

Because it's Good Friday the whole place is in a state of booze lockdown. Not a drop will be allowed to pass a single soul's lips in any bar, club or restaurant in the country. Well, at least not until five o'clock in the afternoon, when there will be a brief interval of permitted drinking, abruptly stopping again at 11pm. This stop-start pattern then continues for the remainder of the Easter weekend, costing millions in lost revenue.

Contrast my wine-less lunch with the scenes in the Holylands area of south Belfast just over a week ago. Hundreds of so-called students getting off their faces on cheap liquor, blatantly flouting the ban on drinking in public. The cops seemed to be keeping a paternal, non-interventionist eye from the sidelines, even though the streets were practically running with torrents of WKD Blue and the like. Containment rather than confrontation appeared to be the policy. Community policing, I believe it is called. I guess that's some sort of softly-softly euphemism for going easy on public disorder.

But really, what gives? Why can't I have a civilised glass of wine with my lunch, because it happens to be a particular day in the religious calendar, yet on another day crowds of feral, flag-waving kids can run riot, trashing the place, tanked to the gills? Yes, I know, I've seen it happen on the Twelfth as well, and it's just as ugly.

As ever in Northern Ireland the largely law-abiding are policed to within an inch of their lives, trammelled with absurd and arcane legislation, and those who openly defy the law - if they can muster sufficient numbers to be frightening, or if they can generate enough implicit political backing, preferably both - are invariably indulged.

When you think about it, restricting the sale of alcohol during certain parts of the Easter period is really bizarre. It's the arbitrary nature of the legislation that is so very peculiar. Even from a Christian perspective, why was it ever deemed that having a drink at lunchtime on Good Friday is intolerably offensive, while it's acceptable at six o'clock in the evening?

Come to that, why should it matter if some people choose to drink during Easter at all? In no way does it interfere with those wishing to observe Good Friday, the most sombre day in the Christian year. Indeed, it's perfectly possible that a devout Christian may attend a service in the afternoon then go out for a pint in the evening. Not every believer regards alcohol as some sort of special affront to God. Drinking and worshipping are not mutually exclusive activities, though probably best not tried simultaneously.

Of course, preventing others from exercising their freedom to choose how they live is the defining mark of politicised religious fundamentalism - that brand of moralising, hyper-conservative Christianity that is convinced that it knows what's best for all of us - and that is exactly what we are seeing here.

Lord Maurice 'Wilberforce' Morrow, erstwhile scourge of the sex trade, is the latest in a line of DUP ministers to fail to change licensing laws. The pressing issue of reform has been on the table since 2012, but Lord Morrow, citing pressures on the legislative timetable, says he doesn't have time to sort it out before Stormont closes. Well surprise, surprise. No DUP minister wants to be seen loosening his grip on the flow of the devil's buttermilk.

In fairness it must be acknowledged that a sizeable number of people in this society do have serious problems with drink, and many alcohol-related illnesses are on the rise. And it's true that we're not the only part of the world which clamps down hard at Easter. For instance, there are severe restrictions on the supply and sale of alcohol in Norway at this time of year, as well as in parts of Australia.

But forcing these ancient, arbitrary laws upon both locals and tourists alike will not alleviate the deeper issue of our dysfunctional drinking culture. Indeed, I'd argue that demonising alcohol and treating adults like wayward children, in need of guidance and restriction by those who know better, is at the very root of the problem.

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