It’s always a risk when there is any change to licensing laws anywhere in the world given the negative impact alcohol can have on society. In Northern Ireland, the Auditor General’s report last year put the cost of drink related illnesses at a staggering £900m a year with 200 hospital beds occupied on any one day by those whose health has been impaired by drink.
hat does not take into account the violence on the streets which is often fuelled – not just – by alcohol or the domestic upheaval alcoholism can cause.
Yet it appears that sweeping changes to the legislation will complete their passage through the Assembly by the end of the month with most of the new provisions becoming law by October.
There is merit in ensuring that licensing laws are updated — the last changes were made 25 years ago — and certainly the pub and club trade has suffered greatly during the Covid pandemic. There are fears that many pubs will not reopen now that restrictions have been eased and it is evident that a significant number of publicans suffered severe financial loss during the various lockdowns of the past 15 months.
The proposed provisions would remove current restrictions on drinking over the Easter weekend and allow longer opening hours.
If passed the new laws would mean that easy access to alcohol would be available every day of the year.
Supporters of the new laws hail them as an imaginative way of dealing with the alcohol issue.
For instance, the current “drinking-up” time of 30 minutes for all licensed premises would be increased to one hour under the Bill, to discourage people from drinking too quickly and to allow more time for gradual departures at the end of the night.
This would see pubs being able to stay open to 3am at weekends.
Clearly, there’s another way of looking at that issue and it’s no surprise that police are concerned, and not just that the longer opening hours could cost an extra £7m a year in overtime — taken from an already overstretched budget.
Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín says the proposed changes strike the right balance of offering support to a beleaguered sector while ensuring that the sale of alcohol is properly controlled.
Few would begrudge the pub and club sector something to cheer about – but the alcohol problem in Northern Ireland is an issue that will take more than a new set of licensing laws to fix.