Sean Murray: From pubs to clubs, modernising alcohol laws is no easy task

The Oireachtas justice committee heard from a number of stakeholders yesterday, with the impact on health a lingering issue, writes Sean Murray
Sean Murray: From pubs to clubs, modernising alcohol laws is no easy task

The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland told the Oireachtas justice committee that some pubs in rural Ireland are ‘hanging on by their nails’.

THE General Scheme of the Sale of Alcohol Bill (2022) is a lengthy piece of draft legislation at over 440 pages.

In a speech by then-justice minister Helen McEntee last year  announcing the new proposed laws, she used the words "modern" or "modernisation" seven times.

This was all about reforming the “antiquated” and “out-of-date” licencing laws, she said, replacing a patchwork of 100 laws with a single, modern piece of legislation.

Under the proposals, alcohol licences will be allowed for museums and galleries, while pubs will be permitted to stay open for longer and nightclubs allowed to stay open until 6am.

But, when a piece of legislation promises such a wide-ranging change, the devil is always going to be in the detail and the impacts of such changes. 

And it may not be possible to keep a very wide range of stakeholders happy given the length and breadth of the proposals.

All this while bearing in mind there’s still plenty of time for the final version of the legislation that passes through the Dáil to undergo significant alteration from the existing plans.

Pubs lobby

Ahead of a hearing of the Oireachtas justice committee on Tuesday on the matter, the pubs lobby was seeking to establish the narrative.

The Licenced Vintners Association, which represents Dublin pubs, issued a statement on Monday to say that the country was already “overpubbed”.

It said the Government’s decision to “effectively liberalise the pub market from 2026” by removing the extinguishment provision would see more rural pubs “die off”

It told the committee that people are “itching” to get into the business of selling alcohol but a “level playing field” is essential.

These fears were echoed by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland at the committee, which remarked that some pubs in rural Ireland are “hanging on by their nails” at the minute. 

A strong lobby during the pandemic, it’s likely we could see the concerns from these groups feature prominently in the discourse around the Sale of Alcohol Bill as it moves through the Oireachtas.

If introduced, those opposed have argued for a sunset period of eight years to deregulation rather than three years.

But there has been an alternative view put forth by the Government. 

Speaking in the Dáil on behalf of the justice minister in November, Minister of State Niall Collins outlined the view that the current requirement for an existing licence to be extinguished before a new pub licence can be granted is an “unacceptably high barrier to entry for those who want to open or reopen venues that could reinvigorate town centres and communities”.

Despite this being called the Sale of Alcohol Bill, it’s not just about the pubs.

Nightclub industry

Campaign group Give us the Night also addressed the committee and in both its submission and opening statement, it made a demonstration of why this new legislation is so important for the nightclub industry given what’s happened in recent years.

Its own statistics suggest the amount of nightclubs in Ireland has fallen almost 75% in the last 15 years, from 328 in 2008 to just 85 now. 

It said it wasn’t just rising costs and changing trends, but the impact of Government policy regarding “unaffordable” licences and ending late opening on Sundays.

The Government committed what is the biggest sin if you’re a DJ or live performer — it cleared the dancefloor.

The group welcomed some of the provisions in the proposed legislation, but said a review of how it operates will be essential two years post-enactment.

Specifically on the extinguishment provision, it submitted to the committee that this could “revolutionise” the on-trade, introduce “interesting new options into areas where nighttime activity has dwindled”, and bring more people out at night who don’t currently go out.

The calls for a 6am closing time would be more in line with European counterparts, even if they’re not for everyone, with Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae saying if someone stayed out that late, “they wouldn’t be the better for it for three weeks”.

The committee also heard from representatives of the Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland and from the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland regarding the Sale of Alcohol Bill, with cultural amenity licences and how permits are granted also featuring heavily.

All have a stake in how this goes from here, and how they can protect and consolidate their livelihoods in a post-Covid world with this new legislation.

Public health

An elephant in the room for these laws is the public health perspective around the availability of alcohol.

The gardaí said the extension of opening hours may result in the potential for an increase in assaults, sexual assaults, and public order offences.

In its submission on the laws, the HSE urged the Government not to extend the trading hours of pubs, clubs, and off-licences as part of the reform of licensing laws, and issued a stark warning that assaults and drink-driving incidents would increase if such hours are extended.

While the fears of the pubs have now come to the fore, how the laws will impact the pressure on policing and health services may also loom large before this piece of legislation makes it over the line.

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