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Should licensing laws be relaxed? Dr Sheila Gilheany and DJ Robbie Kitt debate

Under new legislation, nightclubs would stay open until 6am and pubs until 12.30am. While not everyone is in favour of extending hours, supporters say the move would be a boost to the night-time economy

Dr Sheila Gilheany: No. Why subject our population to another experiment favouring alcohol industry interests over public health?

The Sale of Alcohol Bill proposes extending pub licensing hours to 12.30am daily, expediting granting late licenses to 2.30am, increasing opening hours of nightclubs to 6am and growing the number of venues providing alcohol through cultural amenity licences – all in the name of enhancing the night-time economy. However, increased alcohol availability leads to more consumption and, hence, further harm in a country where alcohol already costs us billions, swallowing up 11 per cent of the health budget, killing more than 1,500 people annually and devastating families. It runs totally contrary to existing government policy to reduce consumption, and there is significant public concern about the likely burden on services.

Multiple studies of alcohol harm show a clear relationship with availability. Northern Ireland has recorded a 17 per cent increase in alcohol-related crime since licensing hours were extended in October 2021. Equally concerning is the link with road safety. An extensive international review found that longer trading hours leads to increased drink-driving. The converse is also true, with a two-hour reduction in late-night trading in New South Wales associated with a 29 per cent decrease in reported domestic violence incidents and a 25 per cent reduction in emergency department presentations.

It has been suggested that extending licensing hours will reduce problems with people leaving premises at the same time. However, in England and Wales, 24-hour licensing was introduced with a view towards achieving this. What was found is that late-night opening spreads crime and disorder back into the early hours, causing significant problems for the police. This issue has been highlighted by An Garda Síochána in its submission to the Oireachtas Justice Committee in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill.

Are politicians comfortable with the further normalisation of a psychoactive, addictive, carcinogenic substance, and an extension of injuries, crime and disorder late into the night?

A careful examination of the likely impacts of extending licensing hours is needed. This could be done through a health impact assessment, a key recommendation of the justice committee report. There have been many calls for this approach including from the chief medical officer and the Road Safety Authority. They are joined by almost 80 organisations such as the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine and advocates from domestic and sexual violence, mental health and children’s sectors. In short, the people who will have to pick up the pieces arising from increased alcohol consumption.

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These worries are shared widely. Polling data from Ireland Thinks indicates that 67 per cent of the public are concerned about the potential impact on public services (such as emergency departments, ambulances, gardaí and transport) and less than half in favour of the proposals – not surprising given a survey from the Health Service Executive which found that 50 per cent of people had ve been harmed by a stranger’s drinking in the previous year. These issues about services were also recently raised by Dublin City Council chief executive Richard Shakespeare.

Enhancing night-time offerings is desirable but does this have to equate with more alcohol availability? The licensing system is in need of reform but this should align with existing government policy and law which aims to reduce alcohol consumption by 20 per cent. Public health and safer communities should be at the centre of this endeavour. However, our current approach to licensing has not reflected this. HRB research found an average of two licensed premises within 300m of all schools in Ireland with a significantly higher number around disadvantaged schools. Should the Government wish it, this Bill could provide an opportunity to address such inequalities by introducing density limits for licensed premises.

Relaxing licensing hours is not a good idea. Given the evidence, why subject our population to another experiment favouring alcohol industry interests over public health? Are politicians comfortable with the further normalisation of a psychoactive, addictive, carcinogenic substance, and an extension of injuries, crime and disorder late into the night? Licensing should have a key role to play in addressing and preventing many of these problems – not exacerbating them.

Dr Sheila Gilheany is chief executive of Alcohol Action Ireland

Robbie Kitt: Yes. We have the earliest closing times in the EU and some of the strictest and most expensive licensing processes

Our access to dance spaces in Ireland is at an all-time low in the history of the State. Venues are suffering under an archaic and inflexible licensing system. We have the earliest closing times in the EU and some of the strictest and most expensive licensing processes. Having said that, the effects of this reform will be very moderate. To illustrate this, we should be entirely clear about the numbers of operators that will likely make use of later opening hours.

In 2001, there were 522 nightclubs. The numbers have fallen by more than 80 per cent since then

There are 89 nightclubs left in the country. That is the total number of spaces that will be able to avail of extended closing times. They account for 0.6 per cent of liquor licence holders. Off licences, which represent the majority of those licence holders, can operate 78.5 hours per week offering much cheaper access to alcohol. Their opening hours will remain largely unchanged in this reform. Nightclubs – which are typically only open on Friday and Saturday – operate for about seven to nine hours per week. While the reform proposes that nightclubs can serve until 5am, the reality is that many operators outside of Dublin won’t go that late and not much will change for them other than the cost. The option to open late will likely be utilised to the fullest by the remaining few operators in Dublin and perhaps a few in other cities.

It can’t be overstated how much pressure nightclubs are under in Ireland today. As much as I’d love to see it, this reform won’t result in a booming of new nightlife scene. Licensing permissions need to change, as they fundamentally restrict the business model of nightclubs, but the moderate reform being proposed won’t solve all the problems the industry faces. The operating costs, particularly when it comes to insurance, make the proposition of running a nightclub difficult. Due to these challenges and other barriers to access that will remain in place, the number of operators in the sector is unlikely to change significantly.

Dancing has historically been an important part of the social fabric of Irish society. In 1952, there were 1,258 licensed dancehalls across the country. If you look up the posters for many of these nights, you’ll see that dances were commonplace across rural Ireland with events in Barraduff and Cahirciveen, say, happening on weeknights and Sundays and going until 3am or 4am. The restricted late opening hours that we currently have are the result of a relatively recent licensing amendment, made in 2008 by Dermot Ahern and Fianna Fáil. Dance spaces have dwindled in the years since. In 2001, there were 522 nightclubs. The numbers have fallen by more than 80 per cent since then. The reality is that people in 1950s Ireland had far greater access to late-night dancing venues than people today.

Too often in the past, nightclubs have been made scapegoats for much deeper-rooted societal problems around the consumption of alcohol. No one is trying to dismiss the risks associated with alcohol, but the low number of operators that will make use of extended opening hours means reforming licensing hours will not have a significant impact on national consumption trends.

Nightclubs face an existential crisis. They cannot survive with our current licensing system. Opposing reform does not solve Ireland’s alcohol problems, it merely drives consumption into the home. Young people are starved of diverse social outlets and increasingly reliant on social media. This reform won’t be a panacea to the problem of isolation and disengagement, but it will hopefully begin to stop the rot of dance culture in Irish society.

Robbie Kitt is a musician, DJ, community organiser and member of Give Us the Night, a volunteer-led campaign aiming to diversify and modernise Irish nightlife

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