CAMRA hasn’t made a huge amount of progress in our campaigns in Northern Ireland recently – after all there hasn’t been a Government or a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly since early 2017.
Yet despite that fact, there is a plan afoot to change the law on alcohol licensing in Northern Ireland. It would see changes to drinking hours and allow sales for consumption off the premises at designated ‘special events’.
It is expected that the law will be changed at Westminster to allow the 148th Open at Royal Portrush golf course this coming July to be the first such ‘special event’. With thousands of visitors to Northern Ireland for the Open, could it be that the powers that be have realised that the regressive licensing laws in NI could be a source of potential embarrassment and a missed opportunity for the local economy?
The proposals to change the law would allow longer pub opening hours during events like the Open. It would also see breweries be able to sell their beer at designated ‘special events’.
At the moment breweries and cider makers in Northern Ireland can’t apply for their own liquor licence, meaning they can’t sell at farmers markets or at big events like the BBC Good Food Show. Neither can they sell their products at a shop or taproom on their premises. Add these restrictions to the fact that very few pubs offer local ales on tap in a pubs sector that is dominated by large drinks companies and you have a serious problem for both beer drinkers as well as local brewers and cider producers.
This restrictive licensing regime in NI has seriously hampered breweries’ plans to grow their businesses and has put them at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts across these islands. In Great Britain brewery taprooms are booming and selling at markets is par for the course. South of the border in the Republic of Ireland laws were changed recently to allow breweries to sell beer on their premises.
CAMRA has been campaigning for many years for long overdue changes to the law in Northern Ireland. We would like to see the licensing laws changed so that breweries can apply for a licence – allowing them to ‘sell at source’, to run and take payment for brewery tours, and the ability to sell at more events and markets across Northern Ireland. This would be a boost for the industry, help businesses to grow and give consumers better access to high quality local beers and ciders.
Just as CAMRA was succeeding in securing cross-party backing from local politicians to make changes to the law along these lines back in 2017, the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed and without a government there hasn’t been a chance to make any progress since.
Now there is this suggestion that licensing laws for ‘special events’ could be changed by passing a law through the UK Parliament in Westminster. CAMRA are clear that reforms to licensing laws must go above and beyond changes just for the Open golf tournament this summer. This current consultation (and any proposals to change the law that come as a result of it) must be expanded to tackle all the issues that make the licensing regime in Northern Ireland so unfit for purpose.
CAMRA will be meeting with civil servants running the consultation shortly. We have had the issue raised through Parliamentary Questions in the House of Commons and we will be lobbing MPs, MLAs and UK government ministers in the coming weeks.
If licensing laws in Northern Ireland are being changed, let’s make sure that as many issues as possible facing beer drinkers, pubs, breweries and cider producers in NI are solved so that we can improve consumer choice, promote Northern Ireland’s beer and cider – and help save our pubs.
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