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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019

Give us the night: It's time to reform our licensing laws - they are straight out of Father Ted

Our licensing laws are a complex, expensive mess. It is stifling creativity and puts as at a disadvantage compared to other EU destinations, writes Sunil Sharpe.

Image: Brenda Fitzsimons/Rolling News

WHILE OTHER COUNTRIES boast about the yearly worth of their night-time economy – the UK’s is valued at £66 billion and Berlin’s club industry alone is worth €1.5 billion – Ireland is still ignoring the merits of a diverse and healthy night-time industry.

An unprecedented level of tourism is pushing most of the new property development that we see today, with Dublin’s city centre on its way to becoming one big giant hotel.

Despite this tourism, the daytime retail sector continues to contract while the evening-time economy grows. It now stands to reason that we should focus on night-time, thus recognising the varied needs of late-night businesses and consumers in Ireland.

Our hesitancy to embrace night-time culture and public dancing is deeply rooted, and seems to emanate from a familiar place. In the 1930s, the Catholic church ordered De Valera’s government to outlaw dancing and “immoral” carry-on at house parties, making sure that they (the priests) were the only organisers of ‘dances’.

Local priests don’t call the shots anymore, but the licensing process is still like something plucked out of an episode of Father Ted.

Ireland, unlike its EU counterparts, forces venue operators to apply to a local court each month, for licences (special exemption orders) needing the approval of the judge and a member of An Garda Síochána to open. 

That means they have to pay €410, plus legal fees, for each night that they choose to run their venue until 2:30 am. 

The upsurge in these special exemption order applications in the ’90s/’00s did not meet with positivity towards a growing club industry. Instead, politicians were alerted to the growing ‘problem’ of increased venues operating after normal pub hours.

Public order was also a concern. So, did we implement the universally proven system of staggered closing between bars and clubs, which reduces the number of people on the streets at the same time and alleviates unwanted incidents? Nope, not in Ireland.

Incidentally, when the use of theatre licences (enabling later opening) for venues peaked in 2007, which inadvertently created a staggered closing system in Dublin city, public order offences recorded a 20% drop.

What was the state’s reaction? You’ve guessed it! To remove the use of a theatre licence for late-night venues, and with no equivalent licence to replace it.

Ireland is nothing like Germany or even the UK for nightlife.

That said, the UK is where we generally look to first when considering licensing changes.

In 2005, the UK modernised their laws for bars and clubs. To put that change into context, the vast majority of UK venues applied to open for one extra hour during the week, and two extra hours at the weekend.

Even small changes like this in Ireland, for now, would make a huge difference.

Go to Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Lisbon, London and so on – patrons are not lining up multiple last orders, security staff are not shouting everyone out at 2.30am, while the atmosphere is relaxed inside and outside of venues.

People leave gradually and not all at once, the streets are safer, and this may be surprising to some – Irish people (who I meet most weekends abroad) do know their limit and their behaviour is exemplary.

If you have laws that treat adults like children, they may sometimes act that way. Trust them, treat them like adults and you’ll get better results.

A problem over the years has been the disconnect between those determining important licensing legislation, and those involved in the actual night-time industry.

It’s well documented that Dr Gordon Holmes (chairman of the government-appointed alcohol advisory group in 2008) joked about not knowing what the inside of a nightclub looked like.

Still, it didn’t stop his group from influencing negative changes to the industry, which has resulted in the steady destruction of venues around the country.

This downturn (also not helped by a long recession) has clearly not benefited the modestly sized music industry that we possess, an industry that now revolves largely around summer festivals and large one-off events, run by a small group of players.

Who are the players of tomorrow though, the ones that’ll change the game? Who will be the next John Reynolds or Bodytonic?

The answer at this point is unclear. That’s because it has been made exceptionally difficult for an upcoming promoter with cool ideas to find a venue, or a venue owner with the vision to enter the market.

The state, wittingly or unwittingly, has been slowly strangling the creative community. Those in charge of culture and arts in this country must address the rapid loss of venues and need for creative spaces.

The same way businesses need offices to work in, creative people need suitable places to perform or exhibit their work in. 

Most vital musical experiences happen between walls, not in fields.

As much as I value and enjoy what festivals offer, they should be a sprinkling on top of an already healthy weekly music scene, the kind of which can offer regular employment and not just seasonal work. 

One prominent licensing solicitor that I spoke to recently described how the state has only ever “tinkered” with our ancient licensing laws, rather than giving them the necessary overhaul that’s needed.

It makes you wonder, with the many professionals we have who specialise in licensing or who work for the state – could their expertise not be used to improve the industry or innovate in this sector? 

Government understanding of the issues already seems to be remarkably on point.

After muddled licensing arrangements resulted in the cancelled Garth Brooks concerts in 2014, current finance minister Paschal Donohoe spoke of how events like this contribute to tourism potential and the economy, and that it sends out a bad message to have them cancelled.

Junior justice minister David Stanton also cited tourism as a deciding factor when lifting the Good Friday alcohol ban last year.

Indeed, even rewind back to when current housing minister Eoghan Murphy asked then justice minister Alan Shatter “whether current licensing laws curtail people’s ability to experience night-life in Ireland’s cities” and if he had “plans to review these laws to bring Ireland into line with other European countries.”

We’re glad that Fine Gael seems to loosely understand the value of a healthy night-time industry. In 2008, when he was in opposition, the current justice minister Charlie Flanagan pushed for the introduction of staggered closing and a specific night venue licence. 

We are now calling on the minister and Fine Gael to reform where others have fallen short and for all of the political parties to clearly state their policy on night-time culture, licensing and the night-time economy. 

We travelled from Irish city to city in late January to discuss these matters with local communities, and while each area had slightly different requirements to the next, the overriding point that everyone agreed on is that we need licensing reform, and a more flexible system for all.

Nightlife is not just about big business either, it’s about small and mid-sized businesses too, the type of which give our towns and cities the character that they need, as well as varied job opportunities.

Ireland, for its size, can be as good if not better than anywhere in Europe for nightlife.

We have the talent but we don’t have the management, and right now we’re bottom of the league table.

Yes, there are some logistical matters to be considered in modernising our nightlife. Is that beyond us? Of course not.

The rest of Europe manages it, and with relative ease. Let’s join them.

Sunil Sharpe is an international DJ and the spokesperson for the Give us the Night campaign.  

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Sunil Sharpe

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