Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Decision to refuse Oktoberfest a liquor licence makes Banbridge look backward

No cheer: The only real selling point Northern Ireland boasts today is tourism, which would have benefited from the planned beer festival at Banbridge which has been cancelled
Banbridge councillor Junior McCrum, DUP

Just a wee, quiet word in the ear of those Banbridge councillors who banned beer from a beer festival. It's a consideration you mightn't have given much thought to, given your remote location and the insularity of local culture. The word is 'tourism'.

I mention it only because it is the only formula we have for the economic regeneration of Northern Ireland. If there was another, you could police local culture to your heart's content, while industry churned out vital products for the world market and all your brainy people in cottage industries were dreaming up varieties of sellable software.

But that's not how it is. Northern Ireland is a basket case economy. Strictly speaking, it isn't an economy at all.

And if ever we were to have to pay our way properly, we would all have to find some resources within us, or around us, that people in other markets would pay for.

And it isn't going to be our quaint conservatism and our uptight manners that will pull in the visitors. It's going to be the view and how to enjoy it.

Tourism: it's the only card we have to play if we are ever to have serious money from elsewhere swilling around among us.

So, what were you thinking about when you decided to ban beer from a beer festival? Did it not cross your minds that you might be impressing foreign tourists with the unhelpful idea that this is a stuck up wee dump, best avoided?

The plan was that Oktoberfest Banbridge would be staged in Solitude Park next week. It's a nice idea, isn't it?

Note the resonance of fellow feeling with our German friends in the title. Just the sort of thing to make the European tourist think we were a genial bunch, plugged into wider continental ways of doing things.

That's a laugh. The only cultural influences out of Europe that some of our people ever notice are Calvin and Luther; fine chaps in their own right, but not known for being able to enjoy a beer.

Apparently, more than 300 kegs of Oktoberfest Paulaner beer had been ordered for the event in Solitude Park. The name of the park itself should have given the organisers occasion to reconsider.

It suggests that Ulster's idea of relaxation is having the space for quiet reflection. No harm in that either; there's a place for it.

But the foolish thought occurred to DUP councillor Jim McElroy, of the leisure and development committee, that alcohol should be barred from the event. Jim, like a lot of us, believes that leisure and development can be enjoyed without alcohol.

He's right. There is far too much reliance on the stuff. Addiction is a problem and violence and sexual misbehaviour invariably follow from over-consumption. No doubt about it.

But I'm sure they understand drink in Banbridge. They have had their driving accidents and fights, their overspill from clubs, the louts peeing in the streets and all the shambolic ribaldry and foul-mouthed squabbling that drinkers bring with them onto the streets.

I doubt if Banbridge is a stranger to all that. And one can surely sympathise with a council that wishes it could talk sense to the senseless.

Has the town given up on any prospect of drinkers minding their manners, or being tactfully stewarded? Because, if it has, the logical thing to do now is close those clubs.

But a lot of people drink and enjoy it and don't become a menace, or end up congesting the gutters with their vomit, or their own bodies.

And if Banbridge wants to lead the charge for teetotal entertainment, then it is going to look silly and irrelevant.

What unionists, in particular, need to bear in mind is that Ulster has baggage. It has a history of uptight conservatism, religious narrowness being allowed to curtail culture and entertainment.

We grew up with pubs being closed on Sundays, because those who governed us had the neck to say we should be keeping the sabbath holy.

Go back further and you even have play parks closed for fear that children would indulge the sinfulness of swinging, or sliding.

Whatever a local council wants, should there not also be thinkers within the political cultures of unionism, reminding the chauvinistic and the dull that these parties need to change their own images to appeal beyond the small circle who think that it's still 1964.

Oktoberfest Banbridge has now been cancelled because of the alcohol ban. Councillors appear to have thought that the festival could go ahead with the yodelling competitions, Ooompah-pah bands and German sausages, but without the beer.

Councillor Junior McCrum, explaining the DUP position, said: "We spent £1.5m on Solitude to turn it into a space for people to walk and enjoy the park without being subjected to verbal abuse."

Well, of course; people should not be abused. Who said they were going to be?

"Does everything have to revolve around drink?" asked Junior.

Well, no. But that tends to be the way with beer festivals.

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