Licensing laws in Northern Ireland may finally be about to change – but a new proposal around the introduction of a special events category has been condemned by the trade as ‘a knee-jerk’ reaction that does nothing to address long-term complaints around NI’s outmoded liquor laws.
A consultation was launched mid-month by the Department of Communities (DfC), which wants to relax the regulations ahead of the 148th Open golf championship, which takes place at Royal Portrush in July.
The DfC is suggesting that it should be allowed to designate gatherings as ‘special events’, thus allowing it to vary licensing hours during those events and permit the sale of alcohol for consumption off the premises.
In a statement, the Department said that it wanted to vary the regulations in advance of the 148th Open event because it believed the move would contribute to the tournament’s success and make Northern Ireland a more attractive destination for events of this type in the future.
‘[We are] aware that the organisers of a number of prestigious events held in Northern Ireland believe that restrictions around permitted hours for the sale of alcoholic drinks, and the sale of such drinks for consumption at home, have a negative impact on their events,’ added the Department
The DfC also said, however, that if the changes were introduced, the number of permitted ‘special events’ would be very small; the type of premises that could benefit would be limited and conditions would be imposed ‘where necessary’.
Speaking to LCN this month, veteran Newcastle publican, Jack O’Hare pointed out that the DfC proposal didn’t address any of the trade’s long-term issues around licensing law here:
‘I would welcome this [proposed] change but it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough,’ he said. ‘Our licensing laws have been in need of reform for the last 25 years and we are still trying to move that forward.
‘What we need is to be getting ahead of the game because we are currently way behind our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland and in the UK. and we are stuck where we are coming up to the longest holiday of the year. Again, instead of welcoming in our customers and tourists, we are going to have to tell them that we are closed,’ added Mr O’Hare.
And Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said that the trade body was ‘extremely concerned’ by the DfC’s ‘knee jerk’ proposal. He accused the Department of ‘ignoring the challenges faced by the hospitality industry here, who have lobbied for modernisation of liquor licensing for years’.
He also revealed that his organisation was seeking an urgent meeting with the head of the Civil Service, David Sterling and NI Secretary of State, Karen Bradley:
‘We are calling on them to intervene and get the wider liquor licensing laws sorted as part of this process once and for all and not just give special status to big event promoters who will be gone as soon as they arrive,’ he added.
‘The British Open may be worth £80m to the Northern Ireland ecnomy as a one off, but our members contribute £1.2bn to the NI economy every year.’
The Department’s consultation period is now live and will run until May 3.