Belfast Telegraph

The Open: Time called on extending drinking laws at championship

The Claret Jug is pictured at Royal Portrush Golf Club. The Open Championship returns to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951 this summer between 18-21 of July. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
The Claret Jug is pictured at Royal Portrush Golf Club. The Open Championship returns to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951 this summer between 18-21 of July. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Royal Portrush is all set for this month's Open Championship.
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Stormont officials have called time on introducing changes to drinking laws for The Open Championship saying it will be "very unlikely" they will have the opportunity to bring about the changes needed before the event.

One MLA described it as a "missed opportunity" saying - given the recent fast-tracking or laws through parliament and involving vast sums of money - "had there been a will, they could have found a way".

The Department for Communities proposed legislation allowing for major events - such as this month's Open at Portrush - to be designated as "special events". This would have allowed for extra drinking time as well as longer periods of off-licence sales.

Officials felt the change in the law would have contributed "to the success of the event" as well as improve the prospects of other major events coming to Northern Ireland. It also said the change "would benefit the hospitality and tourism sectors in Northern Ireland".

A consultation exercise, the department said, demonstrated the "strong economic benefits" the change could bring.

However, the majority of responses were against the change.  The consultation outcome document states they came from an organised campaign run by Hospitality Ulster - which represents those in the licensed industry.

That campaign opposed the changes instead arguing for the proposals to be considered as part of a wider review of licensing legislation.

Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said there was never the intention "to damage" the Open, but rather to highlight their campaign to have the wider issues of licensing law reform examined.

He told the Belfast Telegraph his organisation informed the department they were removing their objections after the consultation process closed.

"We wanted to support The Open," he said," and while it is disappointing it is not unexpected it has run into problems further down the line."

Mr Neill said he has received assurances from the main political parties licencing law reform would be a priority when devolution was restored.

One council - Causeway Coast and Glens - and Tourism NI argued in favour of the move saying it would allow Northern Ireland to compete on an international level in attracting events and meet expectations of international visitors and local residents.

The UUP MLA  Robbie Butler said The Open was an opportunity for Northern Ireland to put itself on the map for business and the laws needed to be brought into the 21st Century.

"It will not be a failure for The Open, however, it was a missed opportunity for us to step up and say we are open for business and we reflect modern attitudes to safe drinking.

"This is about increasing the publicity of Northern Ireland and its ability to hold these events... we don't want it to be another 68 years before The Open returns."

The decision comes just days after a House of Commons Committee criticised the rushing through of legislation in Westminster for Northern Ireland laws on the botched green energy RHI scheme and on other matters.

A bill enacting the £10billion budget was passed in just two days and in April regulations were made baning the flying of drones over Royal Portrush during the championship.

Mr Butler said there was the room and scope to change the drink laws.

"Had there have been a will, they could have found a way," he said.

"If the Secretary of State can legislate on passing budgets, cutting RHI payments, making new public appointments, then there is no reason whatsoever why she and the NIO cannot step up to the plate and actually start acting in the best interests of local people and announce that they are in setting in action a move towards a much wider reform agenda for our licensing laws."

A spokesperson for the Department for Communities said: “With a view to assisting The 148th Open at Royal Portrush, and other special events, the department launched a public consultation on 22 March seeking views from the public and stakeholders on whether the department should be given the power to designate an event as a 'special event'.

"In doing so the department would then have the power to vary permitted hours for sale of alcoholic drinks and allow certain off-sales at the event.

“The consultation ran for six weeks and generated considerable interest with 239 formal responses. The consultation report was published on 31 May and it is clear from the responses that a move to amend permitted hours at special events could bring strong economic benefits to Northern Ireland.

"The department for Communities’ preferred approach is to amend the law to facilitate special events should the opportunity arise. However with the Assembly not sitting, and limited time available, it is very unlikely that there will be an opportunity to amend the law before the start of The Open.”

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