Call for minister to take booze plans further

Plans are afoot to liberalise some aspects of NI's booze laws; but only by a modest amount
Plans are afoot to liberalise some aspects of NI's booze laws; but only by a modest amount

A call has been made for a further push to liberalise pub opening hours, in the wake of moderate proposals to alter the law.

The social development minister Nelson McCausland this week announced some long-awaited changes to the law around alcohol sales; something which has been in the pipeline since 2012.

His proposals include loosening restrictions on pub opening hours around Easter, and a suggestion that big bars should be able to increase their serving times by one hour – however, he aims to cap this at 12 times a year.

From the outset some in the industry had said he needed to do more, and yesterday one of the bosses of a huge pub complex added his voice to those claiming the minister has not gone far enough.

Leigh Scott, 39-year-old assistant manager at Lavery’s in Belfast, welcomed plans to let businesses serve later around Easter time (see below),

But when it comes to the plan to allow a dozen extra-late nights every year, he said: “I don’t think it’d make much of a difference. Twelve times a year? There are 52 weeks in a year – that’s a very small percentage of times.”

Lavery’s may cater up to 2,000 customers on a busy Saturday night, Mr Scott said.

Their club floor opens at 9.30pm but may not fill up until 11.30pm – 90 minutes before they are obliged to stop serving the customers.

In that final stage of the night Mr Scott said they may have lost a quarter of their clientele, as revellers leave in search of places to buy more booze and keep drinking.

He called for a more continental-style approach, adding that a universal theme among tourists is “shock” at just how early they stop serving, adding that a change in this could help boost visitor numbers.

At present, normal alcohol serving hours for pubs and clubs are 11.30am to 11pm, and 12.30pm to 10pm on a Sunday.

Some venues offering food and entertainment can apply to keep serving until 1am the following morning, or up until midnight on Sunday night.

The new proposed extra-late serving times would mean pubs could apply for an extra hour on 12 occasions annually

In addition, those visiting bars on the Thursday and Saturday before Easter Sunday would be able to buy alcohol until 1am the following day.

In response to calls for Mr McCausland to go further, his department referred the News Letter to a statement in which the minister said England and Wales faced negative experiences after relaxing their laws in 2005, and he does “not believe it is sensible to go down that road”.

He added: “While I’m keen to ensure licensing laws assist in supporting the hospitality industry and tourism it must be in a way that does not add to the difficulties we already have with alcohol as a society”.

Archie Wood, a director of the Irish Temperance League, declared himself “aghast” at alcohol’s social effects and said they would be worried by the idea of expanding its consumption; but added he and other directors had not yet been able to discuss the specifics of these new policies.