Belfast Telegraph

Proposed reform of Northern Ireland's bizarre licensing laws do not fit the Bill

Self-appointed moral guardians at Stormont have no business telling people when they can or cannot enjoy a drink, says Fionola Meredith

I used to buy lovely Armagh cider in St George's Market in Belfast. You could pick up a bottle or two, along with a bag of apples and maybe a bunch of home-grown flowers. It was delicious, an authentic Northern Irish product, loved by both locals and tourists. But we can't buy it any more. The powers-that-be have banished it from the market. It turned out that selling the gorgeous golden stuff was against the rules laid down by our overlords.

Yet another casualty of the absurdly over-zealous and dysfunctional alcohol licensing laws that are one of the curses of normal life in this country.

Elsewhere micro-brewers, independent distillers and craft breweries are enjoying a wonderful renaissance. Here they are being stymied by political teetotallers who are convinced they know what's best for all of us.

It makes me sad to live in a place with so many rules and so little joy.

Now we're supposed to be over the Moon because Communities Minister Paul Givan, in his manifold and great mercy, is prepared to allow us an extra 30 minutes drinking-up time at the end of the evening. Pubs and clubs will also be able to serve the devil's buttermilk for an extra hour, until 2am - wait for it - up to 12 times annually. That's 12 more hours of State-sanctioned drinking out of 8,760 in the course of a year that we're being permitted.

Crack open the Champagne - or maybe not.

It's all part of a new Bill debated in the Assembly this week after many years of foot-dragging, reversals and prevarication, mainly by people who treat the populace at large as though they were heedless children, and who believe you've only to get a sniff of the demon drink to instantly become a raving alcoholic.

Finally, reluctantly, they have squeezed out this measly, moralising proposal.

Of course, the farcical rules about where and when we are allowed to drink alcohol at Easter remain much the same.

During the debate Mr Givan and his DUP colleague Jonathan Bell spoke with feeling about the religious festival. "I believe that it is the highlight of any particular year when I remember the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ," said Mr Bell.

Mr Givan said: "You can't argue we want to avail of the rights of having a public holiday, which is given to you on the basis of religious belief, but then not expect that in some way there should be respect given to that holiday period."

Of course, both men are entitled to their views. But their particular beliefs should not be used to place constraints on the behaviour of others. Mr Bell and Mr Givan are perfectly free to reject alcohol over Easter, or indeed at any other time, if they feel that is the right thing to do. Equally, it is not a matter of disrespect if others - whether they are people of faith or not - choose to drink during Easter. The two situations are entirely separate. Everyone can just do their own thing.

For me it's the arbitrary nature of the law that makes it so bizarre. Why is it deemed to be offensive to our Lord to have a glass of wine at lunchtime on Good Friday, yet by six o'clock in the evening it's fine and dandy?

Look, nobody - least of all me - is underestimating the dangers of alcohol, especially for young people. Alcohol abuse and addiction are horrible, and they can wreck lives. But it shouldn't be too much to ask that legislation on this important topic should be based on evidence rather than on blind faith.

Research demonstrates that over 80% of people drink in their own homes, or those of their friends, rather than in a pub or restaurant. So why the excessive restraints on public drinking?

And does anyone really believe that allowing craft breweries to sell their wares at food markets will lure a generation of youngsters over to the dark side?

The reality is that the vast majority of drinkers are not problem drinkers. We like a glass of wine or two with our dinner, we like to go for a pint with our friends, and we like to be free to do those things when we choose, rather than when the preachers at Stormont tell us we can. It is not the business of the State to police the morals of the people. But try telling that to the Assembly.

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