Belfast Telegraph

'We must follow Republic as it eases restrictions on Easter licensing laws'


By Colin Neill, chief executive, Hospitality Ulster

Late last month the Republic of Ireland moved even closer to removing all restrictions on alcohol sales over the Easter period.

The Seanad - the Republic's Upper House - approved the Intoxicating Liquor Bill, paving the way for the government to have the changes implemented in time for Easter 2018.

This is a real challenge for the hospitality sector in Northern Ireland and decision makers here must act quickly to abolish the antiquated laws which impose restrictions on the sale of alcohol on bars, hotels and restaurants across the whole of the Easter period in the country.

In 2015 we estimated that the current licensing restrictions in Northern Ireland cost the sector more than £16m.

However, that figure may look like small change when the new licensing laws in the Republic of Ireland take effect.

Furthermore the changes are likely to devastate not just our tourism but also result in significant additional losses as residents in Northern Ireland are tempted south for the Easter break and southern visitors are deterred from going north.

All of this is causing damage to an industry that sustains over 60,000 jobs and contributes more than £1.1bn to the NI economy ever year. Of course, the hospitality sector is also a vital part of the tourism industry, which is worth £1.6bn a year to the economy.

Northern Ireland's tourism industry has been growing year-on-year and together with the hospitality sector these form two key planks of the region's overall economy.

This is especially true with the uncertainty that Brexit will bring. A failure to at least match the licensing law changes that are being brought forward in the Republic will cost jobs, damage our ability to attract tourists and to retain our existing customers.

This will result in a reduction in investment by the industry and it will hit hard the small pubs and restaurants that are a vital part not only of our communities but of our overall hospitality and tourism offering.

We have made hugely positive strides over the past number of years in terms of growing our hospitality sector and in increasing visitor numbers. That is despite competing with the Republic's more favourable tourist VAT rate, increasing costs for bars and pubs in costs for providing services such as Sky TV and the ongoing ability of supermarkets to sell cheap alcohol as loss leaders.

We cannot sit back and wait for another competitive disadvantage to come our way in the shape of unrestricted licensing hours in the Republic.

It is therefore essential that a new Bill based on the amendments previously agreed is introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly in the autumn, or via Westminster if Direct Rule is introduced, as this situation cannot be allowed to continue any longer.

It is in everybody's interests to act quickly and decisively.

Belfast Telegraph