Extending the licensing hours for pubs, clubs and restaurants has been widely lauded as having the potential to maximise tourism benefits.
Licensing hours remain more restrictive in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK and Ireland. Within elements of the hospitality sector there is a perception that more needs to be done to make Northern Ireland more tourist-friendly. Publicans emphasise the hindrance caused to the sector by these restrictions on commerce. One point of recurrent debate is the fact that licensing hours become particularly limited during Easter.
Currently on-trade premises can serve alcohol between 11.30am and 1am Monday-Saturday and 12.30pm and 12am on a Sunday (with half an hour of ‘drinking-up’ time). Off-trade businesses can sell alcohol from 8am to 11pm during week days and 10am to 10pm on a Sunday.
In 2012, the Department for Social Development received over 2,500 responses from a public consultation on the sale and supply of alcohol. After considering these, the then Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland, proposed modest changes to the current licensing hours. These amendments were agreed by the Executive. However, three years on, legislation remains at draft stage.
The introduction of occasional opening hour licences would enable pubs to make an application to remain open for an additional hour (until 2am) on 12 occasions throughout the year. Changes which would facilitate normal opening hours on Maundy Thursday and Saturday before Easter are also proposed. McCausland outlined: “While I am keen to ensure that 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.”
Meanwhile, in England and Wales, it is now possible for a premises to sell alcohol under a 24-hour licence. However, the exact opening hours may also be influenced by commercial reasons – licensees may choose to open for longer or close earlier on an ad hoc basis.
In the South, regular licences enable pubs to open from 10.30am to 11.30pm Monday-Friday, 10.30am to 12.30am Friday-Saturday and 12.30pm to 11pm on Sundays.
Late licences extend these hours up to 2.30am Monday-Saturday and 2am on Sundays. Off-trade premises can sell alcohol 10.30am to 10pm Monday-Saturday and 12.30pm to 10pm on Sundays.
When asked about the rationale behind the current laws regulating licensing hours, a spokeswoman from the department stated: “These hours take account of the range of environments in which people may purchase and consume intoxicating liquor, while being balanced enough to ensure the protection of public health and public order.”