Northern Ireland pubs plan 'fan zones' to cash in on Euro 2016 windfall
Official "fan zones" could be created in pubs as bar owners seek a share of a multi-million pound business boost created by the Northern Ireland team's qualification for the Euro 2016 finals.
Many bars operate a policy of no sports tops in a bid to avoid sectarian tensions between rival fans. But this means pubs stand to lose a huge business opportunity next summer.
The trade body, Pubs of Ulster, is in talks with the Irish Football Association (IFA) about creating "fan zones" inside pubs, allowing the bar owners to get around the problem for the duration of the tournament. Pubs of Ulster is taking legal advice on the matter.
Chief executive Colin Neill said: "It's a very complicated area of law. We want to protect publicans from falling foul of equality laws - in short, if they admit a customer with one football top, they can't deny admittance to someone with a different shirt on another occasion.
"Unless the issue is resolved, publicans stand to lose out on hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of business next summer. It should be a bonanza for the hospitality trade and we'll do all we can to help publicans make the most of it."
However, leading bar owner Stephen Magorrian, whose Horatio Group owns pubs including The Bot on Belfast's Malone Road and the King's Head at Balmoral, said times had changed and there were far fewer tensions between rival fans.
"A few years ago, this was a problem for some pubs, but those days are long gone," said Mr Magorrian. "In The Bot on Thursday night, we showed the Northern Ireland and the Republic games in the same bar. Both sets of fans were wearing their shirts and there was no problem at all. Our rule is that if your team is playing, you can wear your shirt.
"If anyone starts signing something like The Billy Boys, they are put out straight away. It's very rare these days, although you still get the odd drunken idiot. Overall, I would be very positive."
Another business sector gearing up for Euro 2016 is the local travel trade. Tour operator Travel Solutions, based in Belfast, has been inundated with fans since Northern Ireland's victory over Greece on Thursday night.
Managing director Peter McMinn said: "The phones have been red hot since we opened yesterday morning. We had 15 seats left on our special Sunday charter flight to Finland - they were all sold by 9.30am. And we've had hundreds of calls about packages to France next summer. We don't yet know how the IFA will distribute tickets and we'll have to wait until after the draw in December to find out where Northern Ireland is playing before we organise flights."
The massive surge of interest in the Northern Ireland team has sent many fans, new and old, on the hunt for the latest replica kit and scarves. But that won't mean a business boost for locally-owned sports retailers.
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter, who owns Sportsbeat in Newtownards, said: "I'm delighted about Northern Ireland qualifying for France, but I'm afraid it's bad news for my business. The IFA signed a deal with JD Sports two years ago and it means that independent retailers like me can't sell the kit. Lots of our customers are shocked when they come in to buy a Northern Ireland jersey and I have to send them away. Some of them have even written to the IFA about it. I reckon I could have sold 200 shirts next summer, but that's just business, I suppose."