Why it's time we called last orders on our archaic and illogical Easter licensing laws
Michael Deane is right to take a stand against legislation that costs the local economy millions, says Fionola Meredith
If there was ever a word that was wildly over-used in Northern Ireland, it's respect. It rarely comes as a gentle plea for greater understanding, or a mild request for greater tolerance, as the rest of the world understands the word. Here it's usually a barked directive or a petulant demand.
Respect our culture, respect our flag, respect our language.
Respect doesn't really mean respect in Northern Ireland. It's just a primitive attempt to force people to accept a particular point of view, to elevate that view as somehow sacrosanct and inviolable, and it's a classic way to try to win an argument.
So it's not surprising that the R-word is invoked in any discussion of the annual farce that is our Easter licensing laws.
As things currently stand, this absurd legislation prohibits all licensed venues from selling alcohol to customers after midnight on Holy Thursday, while on Good Friday, punters in licensed premises are only able to drink between the appointed hours of 5pm and 11pm. Then there's another halt to drinking at midnight, at the latest, on Easter Saturday. On Easter Sunday, the shut-off point is two hours earlier, at 10 o'clock.
The result? Up to £20m of losses to bars and restaurants over the Easter weekend alone. Tourists left frustrated, bewildered or avoiding the place entirely. Fed-up locals decamping on specially laid-on buses over the border to the Republic, where they were sane enough to revoke their own Easter licensing restrictions some time ago.
Now the prominent Belfast restaurateur Michael Deane has taken the dramatic step of closing his establishments at lunchtime today, Good Friday, because he can no longer bear the embarrassment to his staff, who must tell guests who request alcohol with their meal that it's forbidden.
He wrote: "No longer can I welcome people through our doors who look completely stunned when wanting a small glass of Guinness with their oysters (only) to be told 'No! Sorry! It's against the law!'
And why must all this choreographed prohibition continue to happen? You guessed it. Respect.
Speaking this week on the BBC Talkback programme, the SDLP's Alban Maginness claimed that people who objected to the current set-up were "a bit mean-spirited" because "they characterise this as being some archaic Christian prohibition". But that's not the case, insisted Mr Maginness. "It's simply an act of respect."
The same plaintive theme was heard last time the issue was debated in the Assembly.
Former DUP minister Paul Givan opined: "You can't argue we want to avail of the rights of having a public holiday, which is given to you on the basis of religious belief, but then not expect that in some way there should be respect given to that holiday period."
Let's be clear, I am genuinely respectful of Messrs Maginness and Givan's right to act in accordance with their own personal religious beliefs. If they wish to refrain from drinking alcohol over Easter, as an expression of reverence or sober reflection, then that decision is entirely up to them.
But where is it written that the consumption of alcohol, on a particular day, is inherently offensive to God?
And why should this act of denial be imposed on the rest of us, including many Christians, who see no problem with having a convivial glass of wine with their lunch on Good Friday? It is, after all, a public holiday, and a chance for people to catch up with family and friends.
The prohibition itself is a rat's nest of illogicality. It is impossible to see why wine with lunch at 1pm on Good Friday is unacceptable, but quite alright with dinner at 7pm. Or why a beer in the early hours of Easter Sunday is wrong, but completely grand on Easter Sunday evening - though only up until 10pm, when it becomes disrespectful and thus banned again.
And then there's the fact that you can quite legally stock up on all the drink you want, any time you want, at supermarkets over the Easter weekend. If you happen to know of a good bring-your-own restaurant, you can take your wine there and quite legitimately quaff it, while licensed premises are barred from even selling you a sip.
Politicians, when they finally make it back into some kind of semi-functional Assembly, must stop treating people as if they are greedy, wayward adolescents who only have to get a sniff of alcohol to turn into booze-addled louts.
The vast majority of us are not problem drinkers, simply normal, independent adults who want to be free to make their own decisions about what and when they eat and drink.
Respect should be something that is freely given, not imposed from above, using these archaic, absurd and arbitrary laws.