CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Seanad Éireann, Wednesday 12th April, 2017
I want to state at the outset that the Government is not opposed in principle to this Private Members Bill which provides for amendment of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1927 with a view to permitting the sale and supply of intoxicating liquor on Good Friday.
However, as I will outline shortly, the Bill falls well short of what is required in order to reform the Good Friday rules in a comprehensive and non-discriminatory manner.
Current licensing rules are set out in Licensing Acts 1833 to 2011 and the Registration of Clubs Acts 1904 to 2008. They contain detailed statutory provisions governing the sale, supply and consumption of intoxicating liquor on licensed premises and in registered clubs, including permitted hours of sale.
It has long been recognised that the licensing code is in need of comprehensive and thorough reform. Indeed, the Government’s legislative programme includes a proposal to bring forward a Sale of Alcohol Bill which would repeal all the statutory provisions currently set out in the Licensing Acts and the Registration of Clubs Acts and replace them with updated provisions more suited to modern conditions. I need hardly say that conditions that were appropriate in 1833 or 1904 are unlikely to be suitable to today’s conditions, and while piecemeal reforms have been implemented over the years, the unfortunate result is a licensing code which lacks consistency and transparency.
The fact is, however, that more urgent legislative priorities have taken precedence over the drafting of the complex Sale of Alcohol Bill in recent years.
Like much of our licensing laws, the Good Friday restrictions have historical origins which predate the foundation of the State. These restrictions were carried over and reinforced after 1922 and have largely remained in place since then. Perhaps surprisingly, they were not adjusted when the licensing hours were last reviewed by both Houses of the Oireachtas in the context of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2000.
It is undeniable that much has changed in the economic and social life of the State since the start of the new century. For example, the tourism sector – aided by low-cost air travel, improved accommodation facilities and varied visitor attractions – now makes a much greater contribution to the economy, including during the busy Easter period. Moreover, as recent census data has confirmed, our population has become more diverse and religious practice has declined.
These are factors which support the case for a thorough re-examination of the current Good Friday rules.
Also relevant is the fact that there are already well-known exceptions to the prohibition on the sale of intoxicating liquor on Good Friday, e.g. travellers on trains and planes, as well as those intending to travel; attendees at certain sporting events; hotel residents; etc. These tend to be highlighted each year in media articles in the run-up to Good Friday.
On the other hand, reform of the Good Friday rules cannot be viewed entirely in isolation from the wider context of public concern about excessive consumption of intoxicating liquor and the extent of alcohol-related harm, including significant health risks. In this context, I note that the Government’s Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is currently awaiting progress before this House.
I want to turn now to the content of the Bill.
It is a short Bill which proposes to amend section 2 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1927 in order to remove restrictions on sales of intoxicating liquor on Good Friday.
However, while the Bill would, if enacted, remove some Good Friday restrictions, it would, due to the complexity of the licensing code, create further anomalies and unfair trading conditions for certain categories of premises.
The proposed amendment of the general rule in section 2 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1927 would, for example, serve to permit the sale of intoxicating liquor in off-licences and public houses but would not remove the restriction in respect of restaurants operating on the basis of Part II of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1988.
The 1988 Act created a special restaurant licence to cater for the specific needs of the restaurant sector; it means, for example, that applicants are not required to extinguish an existing licence in order to obtain such a licence. Sales for consumption off the premises are not permitted however. According to the Revenue Commissioners, up to 500 special restaurant licences are currently in use across the country.
Section 14 of the 1988 Act specifies the permitted trading hours for premises operating on the basis of a special restaurant licence. It prohibits the sale of intoxicating liquor at any time on Good Friday. It would clearly be anomalous – as well as potentially discriminatory – to amend the law in order to permit the sale of intoxicating liquor in public houses which happen to operate as restaurants or otherwise provide meals for customers, but not in restaurants holding special restaurant licences.
Section 56 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1927 deals with prohibited hours in registered clubs; these are members’ clubs which hold a certificate of registration from the District Court under the Registration of Clubs Acts. According to the Courts Service, over 500 clubs currently qualify as registered clubs.
In order to obtain registration, a club must incorporate requirements in relation to its management and operation into its rules, including rules which are broadly analogous to the licensing code.
They must contain a rule which provides that intoxicating liquor shall not be supplied, subject to minor exceptions, to members or their guests at any time on Good Friday.
In order to retain the current symmetry between the rules of registered clubs and licensed premises in relation to the sale and supply of intoxicating liquor on Good Friday, an appropriate amendment to the Registration of Clubs Acts would be required.
There are other references to Good Friday in the Licensing Acts 1833 to 2011 which the Private Members Bill does not address, and failure to do so could create other legal uncertainties. For example, the definition of “weekday” in section 1 of the 1927 Act excludes Good Friday. Section 7 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1960 permits the sale and consumption of intoxicating liquor by guests in a holiday camp in the context of a substantial meal but only between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Good Friday.
It is for these reasons that the view had been taken at Government level, that adjustment of the Good Friday rules should preferably be considered in the context of the Sale of Alcohol Bill. As I mentioned already, that Bill is intended to update the law relating to the sale, supply and consumption of alcohol in licensed premises by repealing in their entirety the Licensing Acts 1833 to 2011, and the Registration of Clubs Acts 1904 to 2008, and replacing them with streamlined and updated provisions more suited to modern conditions. This would mean that changes to licensing arrangements for Good Friday could be considered holistically and in a comprehensive way, rather than in a piecemeal manner.
As I mentioned at the outset, the Government is not opposed to the principle underlying this Bill. However, I believe that any reform of the Good Friday rules needs to be carried forward in a manner which does not create further anomalies and unfair competition for categories of licence holders.