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I'll say cheers if this is last orders for low-cost boozing

Last week, many commentators were relishing the opportunity to dig down into the details of the Coalition's Programme for Government to see what concessions had been made by each party and in what areas.

Those in the local pub trade found themselves pleasantly surprised to find that, for what seems like the first time, the Government appears to be driving forward a number of policies to address the needs of the industry.

While I'm aware that the plight of publicans doesn't normally pull at the heart-strings of many, it's worth bearing in mind that in Northern Ireland the licensed trade employs more than 35,000 people, contributes an estimated £1bn to the local economy each year and plays a key role in supporting tourism with 80% of visitors going to a pub.

Like every other business, pubs have felt the force of the recession, but over and above this the Labour Government viewed the alcohol industry as an easy source of revenue with the Chancellor's most recent tax increase in the March Budget taking the total increase in duty to more than 25% above 2007 levels and reducing the profit made from a £3 pint of beer to just 23 pence. In spite of the fact that 70% of alcohol is consumed at home, calls to introduce minimum pricing to address misuse and the practice of alcohol being sold as a loss-leader by the big supermarkets were also repeatedly rejected.

The industry was braced for more of the same regardless of which party controlled the new administration. After all, the Conservatives had also rejected minimum pricing - in spite of an array of endorsements by health charities, doctors' organisations, the Scottish Executive and Stormont Health Minister Michael McGimpsey.

So it was more than unexpected to find that the Programme for Government included a commitment to ban the sale of alcohol below cost price and a "review of alcohol taxation and pricing to ensure it tackles binge drinking without unfairly penalising responsible drinkers, pubs and important local industries". This new direction comes courtesy of the Liberal Democrats who had proposed both these policies almost word for word in their own election manifesto.

The cynics among us have vowed to wait and see if the proof is in the pudding on taxation when George Osborne reveals the elements of the emergency Budget on June 22. We also questioned if the ban on below-cost sale of alcohol would fall short of introducing minimum pricing.

Admittedly, it was then particularly reassuring when the chief executive of Tesco announced that the UK's biggest retailer would end below-cost selling and is prepared to back the introduction of minimum pricing, if the Government takes the lead.

While the Coalition Government's actions on minimum pricing will primarily impact on England and Wales, the major attitude shift at Westminster will support implementation at Stormont.

To date, the Scottish Parliament has taken the lead on the issue and a minimum pricing bill is due to be introduced later this year. Some commentators say this policy will penalise moderate drinkers and others have pointed to the fact that attitudes to drinking are a wider cultural issue not just a price issue.

As next month's World Cup draws nearer, supermarkets will no doubt be implementing numerous loss-leader promotions in competition for market share, but it will be the pubs and police who sustain the burden of responsibility for any resulting anti-social behaviour.

Pubs offer consumers a controlled environment where staff can help promote responsible consumption, but this can be done more effectively if people are not arriving in pubs well on the way to being drunk thanks to cheap alcohol bought.

However, now there is at least a tangible hope that, in advance of the 2014 tournament, the Government is taking steps to address the issue.

Colin Neill is chief executive of the Federation of the Retail Licensed Trade Northern Ireland