Hospitality Ulster has launched a campaign to force the Northern Ireland Assembly to modernise outdated liquor licensing laws as soon as the Assembly returns from the election in May later this year.
Newry Mourne and Downe District Councillor Colin McGrath, an SDLP South Down Assembly candidate, said he would try and make this issue an SDLP manifesto priority as tourism, the night-time economy and the general pub trade needed to move into the 21st century. He said: “I have met with met local pub retailers to discuss changes they would like to see an improvement to the licensing laws.
“Rather than seismic changes such as 24-hour opening, pub retailers are simply looking for many unique but significant anomalies to be removed or amended.
“We have inconsistencies in the legislation at present which are unhelpful to the bar trade. Examples include the draconian Easter opening hours which are currently heavily enforced and which are labour-intensive for the PSNI. And to circumstances such as where a 17- year old couple getting married must under present law leave their wedding reception by 9.30pm even if held in a bar function room on the premises they have been married.
“There are many issues too with occasional licences that are granted – often for family events. Such licences turn venues and sporting arenas into ‘temporary bars’ and again younger family members are required to leave early.
“I was pleased to meet with representatives of the pub retailers locally and will facilitate a meeting with the SDLP Policy Division with a view to including the repealing of such anomalies during the next Assembly term.”
Denvir’s Hotel Director Stephen Magorrian explained: “We are behind Hospitality Ulster on this. The liquor laws basically work well enough but they do need fine tuned. There has been a lot of discussion around Good Friday and if you can get alcohol from Tesco’s on that day and elsewhere in supermarkets, then there is no reason to keep the bars closed up. The arguments about religion don’t really apply anymore.
“We need more special licenses such as for events like the Tall Ships which attract a lot of tourists, and tourism is certainly a big driver in the economy.”
Some of the current laws which govern the pub trade in Northern Ireland are up to 20, 50 and even as much as 100 years old. Hospitality Ulster, the voice of the sector, says its members are getting increasingly angry at the slow pace of change by Northern Ireland politicians.
A real opportunity now exists says Hospitality Ulster to drive tourism growth and develop the visitor experience that is often celebrated by our elected representatives. They feel that “the MLA’s fail to mention when making big speeches about how great we are here in Northern Ireland – and the benefits the likes of the Year of Food and Drink will bring – is the fact that they are not dealing with the legislation that will unlock further growth. In fact, the Year of Food and Drink has been a turning point for the industry in that it is highlighting how the NI Assembly has ignored the sector and failed to do anything about the antiquated liquor licensing laws.”
Colin Neill, Chief Executive, Hospitality Ulster said: “For years the hospitality sector has been pushing for changes to the outdated liquor licensing laws in Northern Ireland. We had been promised the introduction of a Bill at the Northern Ireland Assembly to make the necessary changes, however, the Assembly has failed to bring it forward. This is compounded by the fact that the issues contained within the Bill have been consulted upon for over four years and as time moves on, the hospitality sector is being left behind.
“We are aware that there is not enough time left in the lifetime of this Assembly, but as soon as it returns after the election, this issue needs to be a top priority. Much of the work has been done and we know there is wide spread support for the changes that are proposed, we now need the Assembly to stop sitting on its hands and bring the Bill forward.
“We are a responsible industry. Going out to a pub or restaurant is actually one of the safest places to consume alcohol. The vast majority of the industry shows a high level of care towards it customers and visitors and through the Independent Panel on the Responsible Retailing of Alcohol Code even the marketing of promotions are carefully scrutinised with a strong code of conduct in place to ensure a quality standard is maintained.
“Pre loading, binge drinking, anti-social behaviour, restrictive Easter opening times and the prosecution of publicans on legal technicalities are only a small sample of the issues that we are faced with time and time again. It is a worrying trend that 65% who drink alcohol, consume it at home, while only 20% do so in a pub and 16% in restaurants* taking it out of the social setting where is it a safe and regulated environment. Harmful drinking is increasing and the industry is suffering under current law.”
“We are fighting against a downturn in domestic tourism, in a struggling economy, mixed with issues relating to the likes of VAT, rates, and the National Living Wage. We simply can’t sustain this ongoing anti-business environment. We are an industry that is a significant driver of the Northern Ireland economy, and pregnant with opportunity as we grow the offer to consumers and tourists. The outmoded current legislation is simply holding us back.”