Since 1833, legislation on intoxicating liquor and associated socialising has always come at the behest of special interest groups such as the Church, the Vintners, Dev or the supermarkets. Simon Price looks at what we’re up against.
The last ten years have seen government legislate NAMA and bank bailouts to the ruination of the country while any moves to alter the status quo surrounding Irish nightlife have met fierce resistance and backbench revolt.
Debate on the issue boils down to a mix of tabloid TV pointing cameras outside Supermac’s at three in the morning. Meaningless handwringing over ‘cultural issues’, supermarket-scare sophism and the usual misdiagnosis by panellists who seem to socialise on another planet.
The Spring session* should finally see publication of the Sale of Alcohol Bill and with it, some hope of your Saturday night being brought in line with the 21st century. In the works since 2007 it aims to replace over 70 pieces of legislation dating back to 1833 and the first Licensing Act.
For a timeline, this is roughly when the British Empire was moving to abolish the slave trade and regulate child factory labour. All those under six were to be freed immediately and no more than eight hours without lunch for under fourteens.
At home, we have 1833 to thank for measures against gambling, boozing in bogs and Good Friday closing, though it took another fifty years before understandably parched thirteen year old children were deprived of a legal drop of porter.
What is remarkable over two centuries encompassing céilidh, set dancing, two decades of showband and the explosion of modern clubbing from the mid-eighties is no definition of a nightclub exists in Irish law.
We can develop a number of reasons for this, with the earliest rooted in a lack of enthusiasm for this sort carousing emanating from Maynooth. A statement from the Hierarchy in 1925 warned this unsupervised dancing threatened not only the “the chivalrous honour of Irish boys and the Christian reserve of Irish maidens” but if left unchecked could “lower the tone of the whole countryside”.
We can only speculate on the harmlessness involved but the menace persisted into the 1930s prompting a mix of reactionary forces to mount the anti-jazz campaign and hyperbole that barely surfaced again till the Swedish House Mafia on Liveline. Pulpits pounded against these “vestibules of hell’ and while continental fascism mobilised at Rome — the Irish marched against Billie Holiday in Leitrim.
The campaign ends with a partial overthrow of Beelzebub and Fianna Fáil beginning a long tradition of craven kowtowing in the regulation of weekends. The Dancehalls Act, eight years before the Ireland Dev dreamed effectively and ironically put an end to dancing at the crossroads.
The appetite however showed little diminishment and on the cusp of the Showband era Flann O’Brien observed that “there are roughly 1,200 licensed halls in the 26 Counties, accounting for perhaps 5,000 dances in a year. Golf and tennis clubs, Volunteer halls and the like do not require a licence. In all, it is a fair guess that 10,000 dances are held in a year, an average of three a day.
In terms of time, this means that there is a foxtrot in progress in some corner of Erin’s isle throughout the whole of every night and day”
Fast forward to the eighties and vibrations were again beginning to cross the Atlantic from Chicago, New York & Detroit. Official concerns at first were limited to long term hearing but old habits quickly returned in the 90s as clubbers had to endure moral panic about designer drugs on top of raving within twenty feet of Bono.
Irish clubbing has since gone through the usual peaks and troughs experienced elsewhere but a uniquely Irish feature is the music stopping before the night itself has peaked. No surprise the rise of late bars throughout the last decade has left plenty of places to drink but few choices to dance.
The Dáil record is littered with guff about “rave dancing” and risible statements when a constituent find themselves kept up at night due to the knock on effect of early closing and innovative manglers seizing the initiative.
All these debates, even since the demise of Fianna Fáil, are tinged with a desire to “get people back into the pubs”.
The most recent case came July when that special Oxegen experience was on display in the centre of Dublin. The usual interests were quick to distance alcohol from the stabbing and shitehawking while at the same time putting the boot into Supermarkets with the twenty-cans-for-two-euro shtick that gets trotted out.
The battle between the on and off trade sees two of the country’s most powerful cartels scrapping it out. A tug of war is currently going on between Vintners and Supermarkets, both wielding an extraordinary influence over policy making.
We only need look back to 2005 when an unprecedented seventy members of the Oireachtas sank attempts to introduce ‘café bar’ licences or to 2009, the year Brian Cowen faced sustained discontent over drinking driving changes from the same TDs who six days earlier stood to applaud a budget that cut the blind pension.
This is what we are up against.
In that respect it’s important to make this an issue beyond the interests of competing industries. While it’s extremely difficult to have any effect inside the Leinster House bubble a half decent campaign will go some way to putting it on the agenda while the bill is being ironed out.
To look at this on terms they understand or at least find it harder to argue. In 2010 Mary Hanafin stood in the Seanad and thanked members for facilitating the brisk passage of legislation ensuring visitors to the convention centre could avail of a full bar.
The Bill received warm support from all parties but the interesting part was not just the “urgency to provide a fit-for-purpose intoxicating liquor licence” but a universal concern that the centre “compete on an equal footing with comparable venues in other countries”.
Similar rhetoric is often employed when it comes to heretical notions of Ireland’s financial services being regulated. Enda Kenny travels the world, telling anyone who listens and most who don’t, that his government is putting Ireland on the road to being the best small county in the world in which to do business. This is the key and the only stuff that generates interest and action from TDs 2012 Ireland.
The most flustered I have ever seen a politician was not on the bark of Vincent Browne but Richard Bruton in the Dáil and the suggestion he is not doing enough to help Irish business.
Remind them of the disadvantage Irish nightlife and by extension business is struggling under. Tell them about the money you’ve spent leaving the country for want of a night out. Tell them how much cash ends up in London hotels and Kreuzberg dancefloors. Explain the money spent hosting overseas talent because a law passed in 1935 is stifling our own development in 2013.
Try and include the word jobs every second sentence. They might start to see the connection between A&E chaos and the insistence on letting a town’s worth of people fight for chips every weekend.
*This piece was originally published in the Winter issue of Rabble and since, the bill has again been long fingered out to the Autumn. This leaves plenty of time to get your word in. Although we are looking at a Sale of Alcohol Bill it is crucial that some attempt is made to separate drink from dancing and pubs from clubs. The most recent comments from the Minister for Justice came in May of last year and indicated a better understanding of the difference then we have seen in years, if ever. However intense pressure from well placed lobbyists is long under way so anything can change between now and publication. As late as this weekend the Sunday Business Post carried a report of Leo Varadkar batting for the Vintners so whether you only get out once month or run a label from the sitting room it’s important policy makers are made aware of a whole world and it’s potential caught between competing industries.
Three or four hours on Saturday night will make all the difference.