Governing alcohol consumption: Who are the winners?

“Excuse me mate, the only reason you could possibly want to go into this club is to get drunk as a skunk, so get back in the car.”

A Belfast taxi man has confidently told me that people in his profession are the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to what’s happening on our streets.

Robert said that when he took passengers from Lavery’s bar in Belfast to a nightclub at 00.45 on May 26th; the PSNI were waiting at the taxi door to tell the punters that there was no point paying £10 in, as they would be enforcing the bar to stop serving alcohol at 1am anyway.

The 3 main arguments of my new friend (and there were many) were:
• The police were overstepping the line getting involved in an individual’s choice to enter the club
• Belfast would never become a thriving European city under current licensing laws
• The economy and health service would suffer as a consequence.

The law is in place for a reason and one cannot argue about people doing their job because of these laws.

The argument I have is whether the right laws are in place.

As things stand people rush drinks into them before 1am then go on to the streets highly inebriated. Robert suggests that, rather than sending drinkers out in this state, they should be allowed to “fizzle out” within the premises of the establishment.

On Rain’s closing time Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster said: “Rain Nightclub has notified Pubs of Ulster of its decision to leave the voluntary agreement regarding 2am closing. The decision to go back to closing at 3am is of course very disappointing and we will be engaging with them to discuss the issue further.”

If the bar is supposed to stop serving at 1am, why does Pubs of Ulster want people thrown out an hour earlier? Would more hypothetical harm not be caused in the unsupervised fresh air?

Justice Minister David Ford has announced he is introducing an on-the-spot fine for being drunk in public that will come into force next week. The fine of £40 applies to indecent behaviour, urination in the street and public drunkenness. Assistant Chief, Constable George Hamilton responded to the announcement: “As part of our Service Excellence programme to deliver speedy, proportionate and visible justice I welcome the introduction of fixed penalty notices for minor offences,” he said.

The disparate powers that be at Stormont are making incongruous laws that encourage a no-win situation. If I had the legislative power within my hands, I would consider allowing pubs and clubs to serve beers but no shots or spirits after 1am – thus enabling punters to enjoy themselves in the club, without getting drunk at an accelerated rate.

The problem is that there is no pleasing everyone. Clubs have their largest mark-up from selling shots, so they will not be keen to serve beer only. Drinkers want the choice to drink what they want.
As things stand, an already crowded A+E department is filled with alcohol related injuries; the bar staff of Rain have told me that shifts are being cut and they are barely making enough to live on; and less people will go to the clubs at all.

Supermarkets continue to offer a much more attractive option of home drinking. The latest Tesco offers include 3 boxes of beer for £20 or 12 Becks for £7: less than the cost of 2 pints of beer in most pubs.

The danger will be that the abuse of alcohol will go unnoticed in people’s homes. As more people choose to stay in, the cultural problem worsens. The traditional family atmosphere in pubs is now non-existent.

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  • iluvni

    Cant you just imagine the little Hitlers now prowling about issuing their on the spot fines.

  • Sounds good to me.
    As I recall when England extended opening hours about seven or eight years ago, one of the arguments deployed was that people drank up too quickly when last orders were called at 11pm or whatever.
    It was we were assured be so much more civilised and continental if people spread out their remaining drinking time to say 1am.
    Now people are suggesting that people are drinking too quickly when cosing time is 1am.
    It would all be so much more civilised and continental if they were allowed to drink slowly up until 3am.

    And when closing time is 3am……..

  • Tochais Síoraí

    We can go on about people being legless coming out of pubs and nightclubs leading to all kinds of aggro but a lot of the time they mightn’t have had an awful lot to drink when they’re inside. Rather they’ve just topped up a bit on what they’ve prinked – getting loaded on cheap booze at home before going out. Pubs and nightclubs are getting a bit more of the blame than they deserve while Tesco and their ilk are coining it and getting off scot free of any responsibility.

    I think reducing the differential between pub prices and superrmarket prices would help big time. I never thought I’d say this but drink has got way too cheap in the supermarkets as the prices above illustrate. At least in the pub there are some constraints but the fridge in your kitchen isn’t going to tell you that you’ve had enough.

    I think a ban on caffeine heavy drinks in pubs and clubs (at least after midnight) would also help the situation. People used to nod off when they had too many – now they’re wired and able to drink much more with all the ensuing consequences.

  • requiem777

    One of the main problems, as mentioned above, is that once everyones kicked out at 2am theres simple not enough transport to ferry them home quickly and safely. I can attest to multiple occasions over the past ten years where I have had to stand on street corners for about 2 hours after closing time trying to hail a taxi, and if succesful being told it’ll cost me about 20 quid for a 15 minute journey, which i’ve had to pay or else i’m walking.

    I assume this latest crackdown is partly in response to the death of the young man who drowned coming home from the Odyessey, a prime example as the place is a nightmare at kicking out time, it’s simply far easier to walk back across the bridge to try and get a taxi in the City centre than wait in what can be a very intimidating atmosphere.

    But I never expect any of this to change in the near future. I know of many people who have asked the cops in both an offical and unoffical capacity if why they don’t use a more hands off approach to closing times in an effort to mitigate the rush. The police seem to consider it a closed issue and I can’t see our elected officals moving on it either.

    I had the opportunity recently to talk to some senior staff in DETI and the NITB about this in relation to tourism, specifically younger tourists interested in the night life. NITB do seem to consider the licensing laws a major concern in attracting that kind of Tourism, but reading between the lines of the answers I was given they don’t seem too hoepful in chaning anything.

  • Mister Joe

    fitzjameshorse1745,

    Quite right. When I was a student at Queen’s way back, closing time was 10:00 pm with the usual 30 minutes drinking up time. There was a lot of pressure to extend the opening hours using the argument that people wouldn’t be drinking 2 or 3 pints in the last hour but would pace themselves sensibly. Yeah, turned out right, didn’t it?

  • I declare an interest. I have never had an alcoholic drink in my life. I personally dont think alcohol is immoral but I take the view that there is too much alcohol about…rather than too little.
    Its not about “rights” of drinkers or publicans…..its about money.
    If people cannot be trusted to behave responsibly……and not like boorish louts at 11pm, I see no reason to expect them to behave any better at 1am or 3am.

    Dressing increased opening hours up as good for tourism or sophisticated continental café culture is risible. Its about ……money.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Stephen,

    I hate to dump on a first-time contributor but I’m a little confused as to what your point is. You throw five or six opinions on various things out there without developing them or explaining why you feel the way you do.

    I have no tolerance for louts or disorder. But because some people act like twats (drunk or not) does not mean the rest of us should have to suffer restrictions on our liberty to have a drink at the time and place of our choosing.

  • Comrade Stalin,

    It’s a blog with points that allows others to make their own minds up on. Not a feature. I’m not a first time contributor either. Sorry if it gave that impression!

  • derrydave

    Don’t want to get in to the main issues addressed in the post (as I really don’t know what the answer is in a society like ours where we simply love to get hammered !), however just wanted to make one small point:

    The actions of the cops in this example is surely to be commended rather than to be criticised ?? They were doing the decent thing in letting people know not to waste their tenner for 15 minutes of drinking time – the nightclub in question would no doubt have happily taken the tenner without mentioning the likelihood of serving time stopping 15 minutes later !

  • Brian

    “one of the arguments deployed was that people drank up too quickly when last orders were called at 11pm or whatever.
    It was we were assured be so much more civilised and continental if people spread out their remaining drinking time to say 1am.”

    Was that really an argument? Who could make that argument with a straight face, other than night club owners thirsting for more revenue?

    Here in DC there is a fight to move the closing time back an hour. On one side are night club, bar, pub owners who want revenue, along with politicians who are looking forward to the revenue from the significant alcohol tax. On the other are neighborhood groups, police, and a few politicians. Interesting to see it play out. Really doesn’t matter to me, my nights of closing down the local bar are behind me, but usually the extra hour of drinking never leads to anything positive IMO.

  • requiem777

    I think the arguement gets confused when people automatically think that keeping the clubs open an extra hour means that drink will be served. I’m more than happy to see drink stop being served at 1am, but would like to see staggered closing from 2am-4am.

    Yes, your going to get people fuelling up just before 1, as said above, but if you could keep them in the club for a couple of hours after and let them dance it out then surely thats better than turfing them all out at 2am on the dot. I go as far to say that the majority of trouble after closing time is to do with people figthing over the limited amount of taxis.

    The provision of more transport from the city centre at the end of the night, dedicated taxi ranks and marshalls to monitor them would do more to quell trouble on a Saturday night than a balnket closing time imo

  • Requiem,

    I agree completely. The law says that drink cannot be served after 1. So why is a 3am opening time a bad thing in the eyes of Pubs of Ulster? ” if you could keep them in the club for a couple of hours after and let them dance it out”?

    Unless people think the cops will get lax in patrolling the clubs and getting on with other duties.

    I was led to believe the PSNI were suffering from cuts and yet they can spend their resources making sure clubs do what they are supposed to do by law anyway!

  • requiem777

    I think it’s probably a nice and easy PR exercise for the cops, showing them to be proactive in tackling binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. Meanwhile everyone sits in their house and gets full before coming out at 11 o’clock, so their getting pissed either way. It’s a cultural issue which is going to take many a year to tackle.

    “Get Home Safe” has always been a bit of a farce from day 1, put it’s accepted PSNI Dogma now and unlikely to change in the future

  • Evolve

    There is no doubt that alcohol correlates strongly with acts of violence and this must be managed. I am however sceptical of the neo-puritanism and sense of moral panic we hear from some in the Assembly and the PSNI at times.

    A workable solution might be that shots and alco-pops should not be served after 1 a.m. and from then until closing at 2 or 3a.m. only half pints of beer of 4% strength and under should be sold. Public urination is a function of bladder size and volumes of liquid consumed as well as the diuretic property of alcohol. Temporary facilities may have to be provided for this purpose.

    Overall laws should be about the application of common sense and not the attribution of blame and collection of fines.

  • babyface finlayson

    Tochais Síoraí
    “I never thought I’d say this but drink has got way too cheap in the supermarkets as the prices above illustrate.”

    The supermarkets should not be allowed to sell 4 Twirls for a pound. That’s why I’m a fat bastard.
    O hang on, I don’t have to buy them do I?
    Must be my own responsibility then.

  • Brian

    “I think the arguement gets confused when people automatically think that keeping the clubs open an extra hour means that drink will be served. I’m more than happy to see drink stop being served at 1am, but would like to see staggered closing from 2am-4am.”

    The problem with this is that bar owners and their employees don’t want to stay open and babysit a bunch of drunks when they are not getting any revenue. However, the idea mentioned by Evolve above seems to make sense to me. No liqour or anything over 4% alcohol for the last hour would be helpful…people could keep buying beers and dancing but would be unable to buy shots or strong mixed drinks to put them over the top.

  • Mark

    In Australia , the staff / management of the bar / nightclub have the right to refuse you a drink but will allow you stay on the premises until you have sobered up ( in their eyes ) . I’ve witnessed many an occasion where someone has been told to ” sit down at the table with your mates and take a break for a while ” …… I suppose it depends on the reaction of the person who is being refused the drink but it seems to work . They said the smoking ban could never be enforced .

  • Mark

    I should add that as soon as they think you can handle more booze , there’s no problem getting more .

  • Comrade Stalin

    I was led to believe the PSNI were suffering from cuts and yet they can spend their resources making sure clubs do what they are supposed to do by law anyway!

    You mean, “law enforcement” ? God forbid the PSNI should do the job they are paid for.

  • BluesJazz

    I have no doubt that the PSNI rigidly enforce the licensing laws in pubs and GAA clubs in South Armagh and Tyrone. If they didn’t we would have heard about it on the news. Wouldn’t we?

    Licensing laws, like dog fouling and litter, should be a matter for local councils. Unless it’s such an easy pitch for PSNI overtime (in central Belfast) that they take the easy option.

  • Mister Joe

    BluesJazz,

    There used to be some flexibility. For example, fishing ports could open in the middle of the night when the fleet was due in.
    And the first place I had a drink was a small pub in Dungiven, 3 doors from the police station. Closing time was supposed to be 10:00 and at 11:00 i asked the owner what time he closed. He said “when you’re ready to leave”.

  • DC

    Governing alcohol consumption: Who are the winners?

    Livers?

  • BluesJazz

    Mister Joe
    People of ‘a certain age’ will remember ‘The Bakers Club’ which opened at 5 am, beside Musgrave St police barracks. It was supposedly for the occupation it named. But anyone could get in. Those returning from clubs (Delta or Plaza etc) /house parties were welcomed. But ..Can you guess which profession were its most regular customers?

    No longer an issue for me, but out in the country, closing time is…whenever. Sadly though the pubs are dying, and drinking is a supermarket driven pastime. Either in homes or outside parks and playing fields.

  • “You mean, “law enforcement” ? God forbid the PSNI should do the job they are paid for.”

    Yeah and they should be at every family’s door in case a husband murders his wife. Enforcing the law doesn’t mean waiting around in the event a law might be broken. Talk sense.

  • requiem777

    “BluesJazz,

    There used to be some flexibility. For example, fishing ports could open in the middle of the night when the fleet was due in”

    There seemed to be a bit of flexibilty in Belfast up to a couple of years ago, but theres definitely been a crackdown the past two year.

    From personal experience, in the late 90’s, say post GFA until about 2000, I remember the cops taken a very hands off approach to the number of “carry out” discos around town. These would have stayed open till about 4 maybe 5 in the morning. The polices attitude at the time was it was better to have these running and keeping people inside where they could be monitored and kept off the streets. Many a night I wasn’t leaving to 3 – 4 and could walk home in peace as there was no-one about.

    Once “Get Home Safe” started the crackdown began and everyone had to be out at once, which, surprise surprise ended up as bedlam. A friend who lived in Bangor got the nightbus every Saturday and she said it was the most intimidating atmosphere she’s ever been in as the bus was full of nasty drunks fighting each other and threatning passangers.

    About 2005 the cops eased off a bit and you could end up staying in clubs for about an extra 30 – 45 minutes, sometimes this would make all the difference to getting a few off the streets. But this is a hot topic again and the police have decided to go back to the old system.

    As i’ve said above, until transport is improved to get everyone home quickly and safely then there is always going to be trouble in the city centre at the weekends. People like to drink and their going to get full one way or another.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Yeah and they should be at every family’s door in case a husband murders his wife. Enforcing the law doesn’t mean waiting around in the event a law might be broken. Talk sense.

    Now you are being obtuse.

    Police enforce the law where there is a likelihood that by doing so they can either prevent crime or prevent public safety issues from arising. Given that a person recently drowned in the Lagan and that there have been several enforcement actions taken by Belfast City Council against establishments for operating illegally outside the terms of their license, it is indeed quite reasonable for the police to expect that they need to pay close attention, in the same way that they operate road blocks and do random breathalyzer checks over the Christmas period.

    To the wider issues. The part about the police recommending that people don’t bother paying the door tax into a club suggests there has been a breakdown in the working relationship between the police and the proprietors of the club. The police do have a degree of discretion about what they enforce and when, and the fact that they have chosen to exercise it in this way suggests that the club owner has done something to warrant that attention. Arguably, it could be the case that the police are just being wankers and harrassing the owners of certain locations, but in practice I’ll bet that the proprietors have flat-out refused to co-operate with their suggestions. Like I said, places like Rain have had enforcement action taken against them by the council on a number of occasions recently and this same club is the one which is refusing to co-operate with the Pubs of Ulster proposal which at the very least is evidence of bad faith.

    Regarding the comments from requiem777 and others about an apparent tightening up of things, I think it is an over simplification to suggest that the cops just one day decided they were going to start being bastards. It’s likely that some of the steer for this is coming from politicians, particularly those to whom the police are accountable to on the police board, but councillors also have a say too especially through the DPPs and police have a responsibility to take complaints on board. I can think of other examples where the police have stepped up enforcement in this way, such as dogging/cruising/etc in some parks around the country. That’s happening because of prudish councillors complaining about it to the cops, not because they think that their time is well spent hiding behind bushes in deserted public parks trying to catch consenting adults out.

    I don’t recognize the comments about “bedlam” occurring as a result increased police focus on licensing enforcement since 2000. I was a student during the immediate post-GFA period you describe and there was always “bedlam” around certain parts of the town, especially Shaftesbury Square on Fri/Sat nights; on one or two occasions friends of mine were assaulted and required hospital treatment. The Odyssey of course did not exist at that time and the Cathedral quarter was only kicking off and didn’t have the same number of bars and clubs as it does now. In the post GFA period people were still a little careful about going out, especially in the late 90s where you still had loyalists going on occasional random killing sprees; this doesn’t happen any more, people (especially young ‘uns) are going out more so it figures that there is a rise in problems in this kind.

    We need to remember that the root responsibility for our licensing legislation, and for holding the police to account, lies with our politicians who have the power to change the way all of this stuff works. The fact that we are complaining about the police, rather than the people who give the cops their orders and produce the legislation that they enforce, belies a certain ignorance among some people about what exactly our elected MLAs and councillors are there to do.