Henry McDonald: The once puritan DUP now stands up for publicans

Back in the 1990s when the Democratic Unionists lost control of Ballymena council it was the ELO that won it.

By Henry McDonald
Saturday, 4th December 2021, 1:30 pm
Updated Saturday, 4th December 2021, 1:49 pm
A protest over Sunday pub opening in November 1984
A protest over Sunday pub opening in November 1984

No, the DUP were not defeated by some obscure faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation or a now defunct republican splinter terror group but rather the Electric Light Orchestra.

In 1993 a DUP led Evangelical Christian protest resulted in the banning of an ELO concert in the capital of the Bible belt.

It was a campaign though that backfired on the party. Because such was the outrage at seeing their hometown turned into a national laughing-stock over the ELO ban that droves of voters went to the polls and punished the DUP at the ballot box in local government elections.

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The DUP had a reputation back then (as they still did until very recently) for being the anti-fun party. As well as endorsing previous Official Unionist Party policies since the foundation of the Northern Ireland state of locking up swings and closing down playgrounds on Sundays the DUP earned an even harder line reputation for trying to shut down anything it regarded as unchristian or anti-Biblical.

In the 1970s party stalwarts picketed cinemas showing Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ or ‘The Exorcist’ and even protested over the first sex shops that opened in Northern Ireland during the early 80s. At one memorable and unintentionally hilarious demonstration outside a sex shop in East Belfast DUP activists held up placards calling on motorists to “bump your horn for decency.”

As late as 2014 the DUP used its influence on Newtonabbey Borough Council to have a play, ‘The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)’ pulled from the schedule of ‘The Theatre at The Mill’. Evangelicals claimed it supposedly mocked the Bible.

It is therefore a sign of how the Covid-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down that at present it is the DUP who is the party of fun and the defender of decadent delights while the rest of the political forces in the power sharing executive appear more like the modern day Puritans.

He may not thank for me saying this but objectively the DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons is currently the publican’s best friend at Stormont.

After Health Minister Robin Swann suggested last month that another lockdown might be necessary to curb the next mass outbreak of Covid infections in Northern Ireland Lyons came out firmly against any new socio-economic shutdown.

The Economy Minister warned that the prospect of a Christmas lockdown would have a “horrendous impact” on businesses particularly in the hospitality sector. In an interview for ‘Ulster Business’ recently Lyons said a Christmas ‘circuit breaker’ “would really be a backward step” for the economy. How pub, café and restaurant owners must have cheered when they read those words!

The minister’s defence of this vital, enterprising and tax revenue-raising sector of the economy should not be conflated with the anti-vax, social-distance sceptics out there who inhabit a weird, paranoid closed universe of conspiracy theories and unscientific irrationality. Protecting businesses and jobs should go hand in hand with protecting people’s health; the two are not mutually exclusive.

It is none the less a pity that some of his party colleagues most notably Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley seem to be sending out mixed messages about public health such as the necessity to wear face masks and the vaccination of 12 to 17-year olds.

Gordon Lyons is right to stand up for the hard-hit bar owners and restaurateurs whose businesses were devastated during the albeit very necessary 18-month shut down. Yet these enterprises were only able to re-open again (at least the ones lucky enough to survive) thanks largely to the UK’s hugely successful vaccination programme.

It is justified that the minister champions the local hospitality industry in their opposition to yet another damaging and costly lockdown especially one which will probably not get any ‘cushion’ financing from the UK Treasury this time around.

At the bar in my ‘local’ the proprietor John Bittles has left an unambiguous Christmas message for regulars and first-time visitors alike. Underneath the words, “Seasons Greetings” punters are advised: “No Jab, No Juice.” It is an exhortation that most of Bittles’ bar’s regular clients will adhere to once it becomes compulsory to produce proof of vaccination when we enter the pub.

There is however a glaring contradiction in the policy of ‘No Jab, No Juice’ brought in by the Northern Ireland Executive for this festive month.

After December 13th a customer can walk into any city centre bar for a lunchtime drink but if they have refused to be vaccinated then they will be shown the door. Several hours later that same person can walk up the Grosvenor or Lisburn Roads to go and work in the Royal or Belfast City Hospitals in whatever capacity and they will not have to produce proof of vaccination for Covid-19.

At the time of writing Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where there are no mandatory vaccinations within the care home sector and the NHS.

It is this policy rather than any silly posturing gestures over the ‘right’ not to wear a face mask that the DUP and its MPs should be questioning over the next few weeks and months.

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