A modest increase in pub opening hours in Northern Ireland is under consideration, it was revealed on Wednesday.
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Social development minister Nelson McCausland said it could boost tourism and hospitality as well as the wider economy.
“I am keen to ensure that licensing laws assist in supporting the tourism and night time economies but in a way where alcohol may be consumed as part of, but not the focus of, socialising,” he said.
“The challenge is finding the right balance.”
Strong public support has been expressed for allowing occasional late opening hours.
A report commissioned by the Department for Social Development said: “Those in agreement considered that additional late opening hours would enable the licensed trade to meet visitor expectations through their food and entertainment offering and offer it a key opportunity to grow tourism revenue through increased visitor spend.
“It was also considered that it would assist licensed premises to manage closing time more effectively.”
It added: “While a majority of respondents were in favour of additional late opening, there was recognition by some that extended hours could potentially give rise to further noise complaints and anti-social behaviour and may result in the current trend of going out later being extended further.”
Responses also highlighted the potential health risks associated with longer opening hours.
“The importance of ensuring that extended opening hours are accompanied by conditions to reduce irresponsible drinking and that careful monitoring of the impacts were emphasised,” the document added.
At present, the last drink is sold at 1pm with a period of drinking up time afterwards.
Mr McCausland said: “Restrictions on the sale and supply of alcohol are necessary in the battle against alcohol misuse and its impact on health, crime and anti-social behaviour.
“I acknowledge however that a modest increase in opening hours may be something worth considering due to the benefits that may be derived to the economy and to the tourism and hospitality sectors.”
Chief executive of the Pubs of Ulster representative organisation Colin Neill said it was important to update licensing laws without placing burdensome regulations on licensees.
“We have always asked for modernisation, not deregulation, and will continue to support the work of the minister and hope that his vision of a new licensing system in Northern Ireland is one that will help our hospitality and tourism industry flourish whilst still being mindful of the need to serve alcohol in an environment that is safe,” he said.
While there were concerns raised as to whether the measures outlined in the consultation document would achieve their intended goals, there was a general consensus that legislative change was required - to encourage moderate consumption of alcohol; to support the local tourism industry, and introduce progressive laws to ensure Northern Ireland can compete with other UK and European cities.
A total of 21 proposals were consulted on.
Mr McCausland is expected to announce his intentions for legislation in the near future.