Licensing laws in a dangerous mess

Political Reporter Mary Dundon reports on fears that a legal muddle could lead to a repeat of the 1981 Stardust nightclub disaster.

GORDON Holmes has opened a Pandora's box on nightclub safety that two Government departments had hoped would stay firmly closed.

The Liquor Licensing Commission chairman has warned that another Stardust disaster could happen because no one is controlling the massive overcrowding in nightclubs.

And while this has caused a flutter among civil servants in the Departments of the Environment and Justice, they have come up with very few answers on how to prevent such a disaster from happening again.

When 48 Dublin teenagers died in the Stardust Club fire in 1981 because they could not open the emergency doors, there was outright condemnation and promises that there would never be such a disaster again.

Well, Gordon Holmes disagrees. The man charged with chairing the commission on how to improve the drinks industry and tackle underage drinking is worried.

"I believe another Stardust disaster could happen because there is no control over the numbers going into nightclubs the owners must be forced to implement the law by issuing tickets so that inspectors can tell exactly how many are inside," Mr Holmes said.

As chairman of the Liquor Licensing Commission, Mr Holmes has also pushed for nightclub owners to be forced to employ extra security staff on their premises and on the streets to deal with the crowds spilling out of the clubs after 2am.

But the commission, which issued its final report just over a year ago, did not take on board any of Mr Holmes's recommendations on nightclubs because of opposition within the hospitality industry.

Now Mr Holmes wants Justice Minister Michael McDowell to act to ensure that nightclubs are forced to implement the law.

However, the Chief Fire Officers Association says the main problem with controlling crowds in nightclubs is the confusion over who should enforce it fire officers or gardaí.

Licences for dance halls and the numbers allowed inside are issued by the District Court and, according to Chief Fire Officers Association's spokesman Michael Fitzsimons, this would imply that it is up to the gardaí to enforce it.

But the Department of Justice says gardaí are not responsible for the control of nightclub numbers and insists that fire officers control safety in nightclubs.

This passes the buck firmly to the Department of the Environment, which controls fire officers. But as far the Department of the Environment is concerned, there is no problem. Their spokeswoman said that nightclub managers have a legal responsibility for safety and overcrowding on their premises and fire officers have secured successful prosecutions for breaches with the gardaí.

Fire authorities also generally include "during performance inspections" of licensed premises as a priority part of their safety programmes, the Environment Department spokeswoman said.

However, only fire officers in Dublin are paid overtime to carry out such inspections, according to the Chief Fire Officers Association.

This means that no checks are carried out on nightclubs outside Dublin after 6pm the time when they are busiest because no one is employed to inspect them.

It is all down to money and resources and the Chief Fire Officers Association has been demanding resources for this for years but the calls have fallen on deaf ears, said Mr Fitzsimons.

Environment Minister Martin Cullen is not helping matters either. He brought in the Indoor Event Licensing Act in 2003 to control the numbers entering events such as concerts in the Point Depot.

But since then, Mr Cullen has failed to bring in regulations stating specifically how many people can legally attend these events. This has left the fire officers in limbo because they have no direction on how to implement the law.

The Department of the Environment insists that these regulations will be published shortly but fire officers are sceptical.

Mr Fitzsimons says they have been told this for the past six months and they will believe it when they see it. Meanwhile, Gordon Holmes says he will continue his campaign to highlight nightclub safety fears.

The Liquor Licensing Commission was set up to make recommendations on how to improve the licensing regulations, and it made 130 suggestions on how to do this in its final report published just over a year ago.

While Mr Holmes is happy that Justice Minister Michael McDowell incorporated many of the recommendations in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003 six months after the Commission issued its report he believes a lot more needs to be done to tackle the problem of underage drinking in particular.

While the minister gave publicans the power to ban under 18s from their premises and forced 18-20 year-olds to carry age identity, Mr Holmes believes that these new laws have had very little impact because there has been no real effort to enforce them.

"A mandatory identity card system must be brought in to enforce the law on underage drinking but the commission would not recommend this because the State has plans to bring in an identity card for everyone in the State," Mr Holmes said.

The Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) also wanted a mandatory identity card system to be introduced and said everyone should be forced to carry the same one.

At the moment, over 18s are obliged to carry some form of documentation to prove their age either an ID card issued by the gardaí or their passport or driving licence.

VFI chief executive Tadhg O'Sullivan said: "At the moment if an underage drinker produces fake ID, they can walk away and it is the publican who will be fined for serving him."

It would be easier for publicans to check underage drinkers if there was one uniform ID card that was mandatory for all over 18s to carry, he said.

But the Department of Justice rejects the suggestion, saying that all over 18s are obliged to carry one of three acceptable forms of ID that publicans can demand they produce at any time.

Mr Holmes identifies another problem surrounding young drinkers: the fact that no serious attempt has been made to educate young people on the hazards of drink. "We have to take the macho image out of young people getting drunk," he said.

He added that a hard-hitting Government sponsored advertising campaign is needed to show youngsters how stupid they look when drunk.

"I have seen footage of people on CCTV cameras on how they look when they are drunk and it would horrify you it would be laughable if it was not so sad."

Mr Holmes believes the Government should sponsor anti-drink advertising campaigns using some of the worst real CCTV footage to bring the message home.

"The Government seems to be prepared to put up the money for the very powerful road safety campaign but will not do it to show the horrific effects of drink on young people."

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