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Easter licensing restrictions in Northern Ireland unpopular with tourism and hospitality bodies

Out-Law News | 23 Mar 2016 | 3:30 pm | 2 min. read

Northern Irish ministers have been criticised for not acting quickly enough to change licensing laws ahead of Easter holiday restrictions on when pubs, restaurants and hotels can serve alcohol.

John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland, said he hoped the Northern Ireland Assembly would bring forward the Liquor Licensing Bill "as soon as is practically possible" after raising concern about the impact current licensing restrictions have on businesses and tourism.

McGrillen said Tourism Northern Ireland supports the campaign launched in February by Hospitality Ulster to push the Assembly to update licensing legislation.

"We cannot expect the hospitality sector to be operating to legislation that is no longer fit for purpose," McGrillen said. "Easter is a crucial period for the tourism industry however the restrictive conditions mean that the hospitality sector cannot meet the expectations of many of our visitors who expect to experience a vibrant night time economy over the bank holiday weekend. We operate in a very competitive marketplace and we urgently need to modernise our licensing legislation otherwise people may choose not to visit Northern Ireland."

Belfast-based licensing laws expert James Griffiths of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the existing alcohol licensing regime is underpinned by the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order, which came into force in 1996.

The legislation places restrictions on when alcohol can be served in licensed premises. On week days and Saturdays, other than Good Friday or Christmas Day, alcohol can generally be served from 11.30am to 11pm at night. On Good Friday alcohol is only permitted to be served in licensed premises between 5pm and 11pm. On Sundays, including Easter Sunday as well as on Christmas Day, serving time is restricted to between 12.30pm and 10pm. 

Additional permitted hours can be applied for, which can extend the hours for service on week days/Saturdays to 1am and on Sundays to midnight. However, these additional hours cannot be used on Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Day, with the effect that premises will need to stop serving at midnight on Easter Thursday and Easter Saturday.

Shops also face restrictions on when they can sell alcohol, but they are different from the rules that apply to pubs, restaurants and hotels. Shops can sell alcohol from 8am to 11pm on week days, other than Christmas Day. On Sundays, other than on Christmas Day or Easter Sunday, the sale of alcohol by shops is permitted between 10am and 10pm.

In 2012 Northern Ireland's Department for Social Development consulted changes to the law regulating the sale and supply of alcohol in Northern Ireland. The consultation prompted over 2,500 responses.

In 2014, then social development minister Nelson McCausland announced how the Northern Ireland Executive would respond to stakeholder views. He rejected calls to align Northern Ireland's alcohol licensing regime with that of England and Wales and instead opted for minor reforms to the legislation. At the time, though, he indicated that some "modest changes" would be made to pub Easter opening hours. Since then, however, no new legislation has been delivered.

According to a report by the Belfast Telegraph, a study commissioned by Hospitality Ulster has found that pubs, hotels and restaurants in Northern Ireland stand to lose out on approximately £16 million of profit over the Easter period as a result of the licensing restrictions in place.

"The results of Hospitality Ulster’s survey of its members show that there is a real urgency from the hospitality industry for modernisation of the liquor licensing laws in Northern Ireland," Griffiths of Pinsent Masons said. "The Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 is now 20 years old, and Northern Ireland has changed a huge amount within those two decades. With tourism now booming, maintaining the current restrictions on the hours in which pubs, restaurants, hotels and shops can sell alcohol will become more and more controversial."

"Following a consultation exercise which concluded in 2012, it had been anticipated that fresh legislation would be brought before the Assembly before the end of its current term in May 2016 which would, amongst other things, specifically address Easter opening hours. Whilst this has not come to pass within this mandate, hopefully licensing reform is an area to which the Assembly will direct its attention soon after the forthcoming elections," he said.