Everyone has their thing, their “if I was Prime Minister I would…”, mine is Easter Licensing. Except it’s more than that, it’s institutionalising one faith over that of another, enshrining the rights of the few to be of more importance than the rights of the rest. Yes, I have worked in the hospitality industry for a long time and it affects me and “us” but I can’t foresee a time where it doesn’t bother me so much that I have to do what I can to highlight it and hope that some day, enact change.
Alcohol, that’s what it tends to come down to, when discussing this issue with a pro-restriction supporter, reducing such an expansive issue to its lowest common denominator, is that enough of an argument to make, that alcohol is bad, it’s controlled, it’s addictive etc etc. No, of course it isn’t, if that was the case then alcohol would be banned, instead of having an arbitrary restriction placed on it for a particular religiously significant period. So, for those who aren’t aware, here are the restrictions.
Thursday (Before Easter Friday)
Alcohol can be sold as normal throughout the day, but must cease by 11pm, unless a late extension license exists, when it must not be sold after midnight. (Many bars and all nightclubs have this extension, generally speaking, if a bar opens until 1am or later at a weekend, it has a late extension of their license)
ON-SALES (for consumption on premises)
Alcohol can ONLY be sold between 5pm and 11pm. There are no late licenses permitted to operate beyond this.
OFF-SALES (for consumption away from the premises)
Alcohol can be sold from 8am until 11pm. Unless the off-sales is attached to an on-sales (ie the bar licence permits the operation of an off-sales attached to the business…like Laverys, Belfast for example) in which case it is 5pm-11pm.
Alcohol can be sold throughout the day but must not be sold past 11pm, unless a late extension exists, where it must finish at midnight
Alcohol can only be sold from 12.30pm until 10pm. There are no late licenses permitted to operate b beyond this.
Closed. Alcohol is not permitted to be sold from an off-licence on Easter Sunday whatsoever. Not Winemark, not Tesco, nowhere.
So now you know the rules we’re playing with, what effect does that have?
Nightclubs for one, when you have to stop serving at 11pm on Friday, it’s really not worth your while opening up in the first place, for an hour or so of trading? Saturday isn’t that much better.
Bars and Restaurants where food is a strong part of the business, not being able to serve a customer a glass of wine with their lunch when asked is frankly embarrassing, I have lost count of the amount of times a customer has taken it as some sort of a personal insult, or that I’ve gone militant-christian and am forcing customers in my own business to follow my doctrine. When those customers are tourists it becomes a different matter completely.
But beyond this, beyond the alcohol, there is a very real cost to easter licensing, a cost not even yet quantified as no political party seems willing to take the issue head-on. According to a freedom of information request to the NI Courts service, in the province currently, there are:
1207 premises licensed to sell alcohol on or off the premises
525 premises licensed to sell alcohol for consumption off the premises
Plus any number of licenses for restaurants who sell alcohol as a supplementary to their core food business. Let’s pretend there are only 500 licensed restaurants in Northern Ireland, that means over 2000 businesses are affected by easter licensing legislation. If each of those businesses has 10 employees, that’s 20,000 employees, that’s 20,000 tax paying citizens who have their working potential restricted by a particular sect of a particular faith enshrining their belief system in law. The hospitality sector actually employs more than 40,000 people so the real figure is much scarier. One nightclub in Belfast estimates its losses of being closed easter weekend at £55,000 (compared to May Day bank holiday weekend). Too often the view here is “oh, poor publicans, “poor me, poor me, pour me another one”, or “pints are so expensive these days they’ll make it up in no time…” how about looking at that money closer? £55,000… that is £11,000 in vat, relax the laws for 20 nightclubs and that is the equivalent of filling the funding gap for the Belfast Festival (£200,000). £55,000, the industry wide norm for wages is between 20% and 30%, so lets say 25%, that’s £16000 that staff from that one business would have received from a normal weekends work, but because of the current easter licensing laws, they miss out. And of course from that £16000 there is NI, PAYE, Pension contributions… Hospitality staff are often part-time and low-paid, those missing shifts can be a really big deal to some workers. For some, it drives them below the earning/hours threshold and into benefits territory. All because of some arbitrary interpretation of easter observance.
When I was a kid it always confused me why easter moved around the calendar, I just went with it being one of those things, and most people now know something about why, but I think in the context of easter licensing laws it is important to establish it. Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Yep, that’s about as pagan as it gets folks. I can’t serve a tourist getting off a cruise ship a glass of Guinness at 3pm on good Friday because it is the Friday before the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Try explaining that to a customer who doesn’t seem to grasp the symbolism of the vernal equinox. Arguably it’s an easier explanation than the Christian one…at least a full moon is tangible.
The ashers cake issue is something I’ve watched closely, along with Paul Givans conscience clause… one one hand, you have people such as Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance preaching about how Christians are oh-so-put-upon and how they are really the ones being discriminated against in society, marginalised because of their faith. And then this… Today I debated this with Peter Lynas on the Stephen Nolan radio show, and boldly he brought up Ashers before I had a chance to. He said that “this was a case of publicans trying to have their cake and eat it”, about trying to cash in on the easter holidays without having to pay any particular heed to the meaning behind easter (I assume he meant the whole jesus thing, and not the vernal equinox). Mela…Diwali…Halloween… for christs sake, MAY DAY! May day was a roman festival, because may day weekend can be a busy period in the hospitality and tourism sector should we pay particular respect to Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers? Burns Night? Can a restaurant run a burns night special menu without having to adopt Scotland as their nationality for the evening? The Christian faith has a LONG history of tagging their belief system onto already existing calendar events… supermarkets sell easter eggs in December…I’m not going to apologise that my industry tries to make hay while the sun shines, I’m also not going to convert to christianity for the weekend just because (if there were no restrictions) it might bring more customers into a business.
One caller to the radio today made a point about how “all we’re asking for is to have this holy week respected”…interesting phrase, “asking for”… it suggests a request, a favour…that’s abjectly not the case, nothing is being asked for by the Christian lobby except to maintain the status quo of protectionism of a religious observance. Is there anything in the bible that states when alcohol can be consumed over easter weekend? If there is, can you explain why I can sell it in a bar on easter Sunday but asda can’t sell it, then on good Friday, I have to refuse you before 5pm but you can walk to an off sales and buy 12L of vodka and drink yourself to death if you’re so inclined? Did you know that if you go into a BYOB restaurant during the restricted times, with your own bottle of wine, it’s fine. If the restaurant charges corkage and the waiter opens the bottle for you, the waiter is a criminal and the restaurant could be fined? What kind of a system is this? The law isn’t cohesive and it’s representational of modern society, this sort of legislation should have died years ago, long before I was born and grew up to take an interest in it, this is the sort of thing that should be told after a few beers in mixed age company, when an elder member of the group says “I remember ration books” or “I remember when the DUP used to chain up the swings in the park on a Sunday”…but this isn’t an old story trotted out to entertain the youth of today that they have never had it so good. This is what tens of thousands of hospitality staff have to work with. We have to be forced into observing a faith without having any free will on the matter. Is the church so insecure in itself that it fears whether or not people will go the pub or the pulpit? If so then perhaps the church should be worried about more than just easter licensing, maybe the end of days have arrived for organised religion.
I have said countless times how you can go to a predominantly Islamic nation, take Iraq, Egypt or Iran for example, and eat in a restaurant during daylight hours during Ramadan, even though the native subscribers of the religion won’t eat, you have the freedom to choose for yourself whether you adhere to it, faith is a personal issue. Yet our parochial government doesn’t trust its own citizens to decide for themselves if they would like a glass of reisling with their lunch.
I ran the #BlameNelson campaign last year with some success, I believe more people than before became aware of the issue and don’t just see it as “people wanting beer when they can’t have beer”, I will be doing the same this year with #BlameMervyn. Mervyn Storey has taken no action on Easter Licensing since becoming social development minister, I asked a question in October of 2014 to ascertain what Mervyn Storeys opinion on Easter Licensing was, and what he intended to do re: Nelson McCauslands proposed changed to the legislation. For those unaware, Former-Minister McCausland had, after taking into account the public consultation, decided that he might increase the closing time on Friday and Saturday by an hour. Minister Storey passed my letter onto a civil servant who replied informing me that the executive agreed in July (2014) to the drafting and introduction of a bill based on these previously published proposals. It is expected the bill will be introduced to the assembly in spring next year (2015). Has that happened? No. Should it? No. Pubs of Ulster lead the lobby on licensing reform, they accepted the proposed changes, whilst also whispering really politely that they felt it should have gone further, but they accepted it. I implored them to stick 2 fingers up the minister and say it’s real change or no change. I don’t want some flimsy alteration just so it seems like the hospitality industry got a little bit of give for once, moving the legislation by an hour will keep the actual issue off the executive table for years to come. I have approached multiple MLA’s, whilst there are a great many voices of support, I’ve yet to find someone who is willing to take it on alongside me, the general response is “I agree with you wholeheartedly…but good luck with that”. I’d love to hear an actual explanation for the current laws, I’m not even playing silly buggers…I have no idea how they came up with this, I know the old adage “A camel is a horse designed by committee” and perhaps there is some truth in that, but it just defies comprehension. If the issue is restricting alcohol sales, then I suspect if you asked every publican in the land if they would be ok moving the easter rules to a weekend in mid january, they’d bite your hand off. I have wanted an MLA to pose a question the assembly for some time, I want someone to ask the Social Development minister the following question
In keeping with the restrictions placed on the hospitality industry by easter licensing legislation, would the minister for social development undertake some exploration into making it illegal to serve food in restaurants during daylight hours through the month of Ramadan?
What minister would do that? But could a government minister give one religion over another that level of protection? Could an elected representative in good conscience say “the rights of one faith deserve protection, but not the rights of another”?…
If I had Slugger O’Toole’s money, I’d hire a great lawyer and challenge this in courts, unfortunately I don’t, so all I can do is rant and rave. Nadia Eweida however had a different outcome…she worked for British Airways and was disciplined at work for wearing a cross on a necklace, she took her case as far as the European court of appeal, where she won. It was decided that BA had put her in an unreasonable position and she wasn’t able to express her faith in a way that didn’t intervene with her work. I am a humanist, I am not able to freely express my faith (which is a protected religion by the ECHR) because I am forced by my government to forsake my faith to observe another faiths religious holiday. All I want is freedom to choose for myself, for a business owner to decide when they can and can’t operate their business to its designed purpose.
Equal Rights seems like the most foreign concept to those of us in Northern Ireland, we know the words but do we know the meaning of them? This sort of legislation is terrible for those oppressed by it, losing out on wages and work, and beyond…the hospitality industry is the tent pole for so many other businesses, all of which suffer due to the downturn in trade because of red-tape and nothing else. I also have pity for another group though, spare a thought for the Christians. Not the ranty-holier-than-thou-don’t-play-football-on-a-Sunday-that’s-a-deadly-sin-I’m-sure-it’s-in-the-bible-somewhere crowd. The rest of them, the normal people, like me, who believe what they believe and that’s ok with them. It’s a PR disaster for Christians, when people like Peter Lynas get national airtime and give the impression that Christians as a whole are oppressive tyrants with a penchant for stomping on civil liberties… It’s enough to turn a Christian to drink.
I finish with this quote that I absolutely love but have long since forgotten its origin. Religion is like a penis, it’s absolutely fine to have one, but you’re going to have problems when you start shoving it in peoples faces.