Are new licensing laws about drink culture or night culture?

The extension of licensing hours has transformative potential if government places an emphasis on enhancing night culture, writes Dr Catherine Conlon

Following an overhaul of licensing laws that will allow later opening times for pubs and clubs next summer, there has been considerable media comment from health professionals and others. They say the proposals will increase alcohol-related disease and pile pressure on already strained health services.

The Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar TD, suggests the reforms will be good for hospitality businesses, boost the economy, and generate employment. The emphasis here is on business, the economy and employment.

If this legislation is to work, the priority should be on creativity and wellbeing, giving young people an outlet to socialise in an atmosphere that is focused on music, dance, food, culture, and company. The success of these measures hangs on the question of whether they are about enhancing the Irish drinking culture or the Irish night culture.

The number of nightclubs in Ireland has plummeted from about 500 twenty years ago to about 80 today. Pubs in Ireland are also in decline, falling by over 20 per cent since 2005. Reasons given for the demise of clubs and pubs include insurance costs, planning regulations, the Covid-19 pandemic, and licensing laws, the latter often considered the biggest problem.

As pubs and clubs disappear, the drinking culture has moved to buying alcohol by the crateload to consume at home before heading into town. The Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, TD, suggests that the legislation will regulate the sale of alcohol while supporting the development of night-time culture and the night-time economy, bringing licensing laws in line with much of the rest of Europe.

“It will also aim to support the industry, protect and back our pubs. And it will help people to open a pub where some have shut, start a venue, club night or an exhibition space, creating jobs and enriching our culture as they do so,” she said, in a statement issued last week by the Department of Justice.

Pub culture and nightlife culture have died a death in the last two decades. This has been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which demonstrated that isolating young people in their homes without the opportunity to socialise has severe consequences for their mental health.

Many young adults have had little opportunity to relish the vibrant pub and club culture that existed in Ireland two decades ago. Large dance floors in Dublin have disappeared one by one. In 2022, there is no large, purpose-built nightclub in the capital city.

These clubs offered something that was artistically creative — prioritising dancing over drinking, with a specific music policy connected to a niche culture such as electronic music. The club was about the music and the dance. Their replacements — cocktail bars and late-night drinking joints — are about one thing: alcohol. Nightclubs closed because they could not operate on tight margins within the confines of strict licensing laws. The proposed legislation provides an opportunity to change that.

I was never a big fan of nightclubs, but the pub on a Friday or Saturday evening was a huge focus at the end of the week. In the late eighties and early nineties, the emphasis was on meeting, chatting, socialising — usually in a haze of smoke, but it was most definitely not on getting smashed as quickly as possible. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, TD, agrees. He suggests the legislation would reinvigorate towns and villages and give a much-needed boost to rural pubs, clubs, and the economy.

In terms of nightclubs, Minister McEntee stated: “We do not just experience music on the dancefloor. Clubbing is culture which drives creativity and shapes attitudes.”

If these new licensing laws are to reenergise nightlife in cities and towns across Ireland, they need to be introduced with a focus on what happens around drink — not just on being able to drink all night and stagger home bleary-eyed at dawn.

The Minister suggests we need to align our licensing laws with Europe. It is worth examining what is happening at night in other countries. A 2016 report in the Guardian summarised some of the cultural differences around alcohol consumption across the globe. The UK has a culture like Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand: high levels of binge-drinking turn cities and towns into ugly and threatening places at night.

In much of Europe, people seem to drink as an accompaniment to a food experience, not an end in itself. In Belgium, beer is sold in every chip shop (frituur), but drunkenness is unacceptable. In France, people drink extensively and steadily but in small units; drinking to savour the flavours and to enhance their food. In Italy, consuming alcohol revolves around food. You are drinking to accompany your meal, or you are given free snacks to soak up your drink at a bar. The emphasis in mainland Europe is the ability of alcohol to enhance the social experience.

Extending the licensing laws to enhance night culture will only work if additional supports are in place.

The Minister for Tourism, Catherine Martin, TD, has made some efforts to address this. The recent Basic Income for Arts Pilot Scheme is a vital support at a time when the cost of living makes the ability to survive as an artist challenging, if not impossible. The Arts Council grants to artists when the industry was on its knees during the pandemic were also crucial.

But there are other steps that could be taken. Infrastructure to support artists and musicians could be protected from private investors who have the capacity to pay premium rates for artistic hubs that are demolished and rebuilt as apartment blocks, offices, and hotels.

Public transport needs to be expanded and offer clubbers and music lovers a safe and affordable route home late at night. Late night food needs to be affordable and diverse. Is there room for food trucks offering tasty, affordable food and hot coffee and tea to hordes of clubbers spilling out of late-night venues? There is during the day. Why not at night?

The hostility on city streets must be addressed. Binge-drinking being culturally acceptable is the biggest problem of all. This could change rapidly if attitudes to night culture moved away from focusing on alcohol and supported a diverse range of offerings around music, dance, food, and art that appeal to all ages, genders, and ethnicities.

Nightlife is not just about people who want to drink and don’t want to go home. It must be about giving people an opportunity to meet, mingle, relax, and express themselves.

If an emphasis is placed on allowing young adults an opportunity to be creative around art, music, dance, and food — with alcohol providing an opportunity to enhance those outlets — then the extension of licensing hours has the potential to be transformative.

Dr Catherine Conlon is a public health doctor in Cork and former director of human health and nutrition, safefood.

Dr Catherine Conlon

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