Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Reform of Northern Ireland licensing laws should serve the people, not promoters of major events

 

Celebrity chef John Torode hosts a special event at St George’s Market in Belfast
Celebrity chef John Torode hosts a special event at St George’s Market in Belfast
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

The absence of a functioning executive at Stormont is routinely blamed for everything from the length of hospital waiting lists to the dire state of our pothole-ridden roads. Without a minister to take strategic decisions or to sign off changes, the machinery of state has ground to a juddering halt.

But hang on a minute. It seems that changes to existing laws can indeed be made if the will to do so is there, and they can be done remarkably quickly, no minister required.

On March 22, the Department for Communities (DfC) suddenly launched a public consultation on relaxing restrictions on the sale of alcohol at "special events".

This is remarkable in itself, considering how long the hospitality industry has been begging for a revamp of our dysfunctional licensing laws.

A reform bill is currently languishing with all the other pieces of mothballed legislation which await the return of Stormont.

The brief consultation period on the proposed new change to the law finishes today, so you'd better get your skates on if you want to share your thoughts with the DfC.

Why the mad rush? Well, the DfC is quite frank about it. "The department is consulting at this time because The 148th Open Golf Championship takes place at the Royal Portrush Golf Club in July," it says.

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A change in the law, giving the DfC power to bestow the status of a 'special event', would allow it to increase the hours during which alcohol can be sold, as well as allowing off-sales, which are currently only permitted from pubs and off-licenses.

In other words, civil servants are frantically scurrying to rejiggle our absurdly restrictive, intolerably paternalistic and farcically outdated licensing laws in order to appease the big players from out of town.

The promoters of what the DfC rather obsequiously calls "prestigious events" naturally expect to be able to sell alcohol in the usual way they do in normal, civilised societies - by which I mean almost everywhere else except Northern Ireland - and must be amazed and outraged to find that they can't.

I have no bother with the proposed change. If the Open organisers want to keep their bars open a bit later, or earlier, for happy customers in Portrush, bring it on. If they want to flog Open-branded Scotch to the punters, that's all fine and dandy.

A law change would also avoid a repeat of the embarrassing scene at the BBC Good Food Show in the Waterfront Hall - billed as "a three-day extravaganza to celebrate Northern Ireland's growing food and drink scene" - where exhibitors were reportedly unable to sell their wares.

All those beautiful craft beers and gins, which local producers excel in creating, denied to the public because of our nonsense laws about drink.

Here's the point, though: if civil servants can suddenly take it upon themselves to change the law to accommodate external events organisers who jet in, make their money and then depart again, why can't they extend that privilege to the people who actually live and work in Northern Ireland?

If it's acceptable for opening times to be extended at big events like The Open, why can't they be extended for bars, clubs and restaurants across Northern Ireland, all year round?

Don't treat us like adult children, only to be permitted extra drinking time as a special and very occasional treat.

This simply patronises us, while doing nothing to address the scourge of problem drinking.

Likewise, if breweries, cider-makers and gin-distillers will now be allowed to sell their products at events like the Good Food Show, why not permit them to open their tap-rooms on-site and serve to the public direct?

Why not allow them to serve their wares from market stalls, as they do elsewhere in sensible places where artisan craftspeople are not ham-strung by crazy legislation from the dark ages?

Look at the vast groups of tourists, many of them wealthy cruise-ship travellers, who descend on St George's Market every weekend. I bet they'd snap up our wonderful golden Armagh cider by the barrel-load if they weren't automatically denied the opportunity.

Hospitality Ulster says that The Open, as a one-off event, will be worth £80million to the Northern Ireland economy - a sizeable chunk, but only a fraction of the £1.2billion that the local hospitality industry contributes every year.

Instead of a knee-jerk legislative rush-job, we need to create a modern, enlightened, socially-responsible licensing law that serves the needs of the people, not-big name promoters.

Clearly, civil servants have the power to make that happen.

Belfast Telegraph

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