- 23 Feb 21
Longer pub and nightclub hours, staggered closing times, the abolition of the expensive SEOs and new categories of licences for cultural venues are all proposed as part of Minister Helen McEntee's Justice Plan 2021. Hot Press delved into the news by querying industry experts on whether the Government will follow through on their much-needed promises, and what other developments could finally bring a thriving, inclusive night-time culture to Ireland.
The conversation around Ireland's archaic licensing laws has been ongoing for many years prior to the industry-decimating COVID-19 pandemic; with Dublin nightclubs consistently shutting down due to high costs. The lack of accessibility and hybrid cultural spaces only further add to the lengthy list of frustrations.
Lockdown has unfortunately managed to deepen the open wound, creating staggering job losses and impossible mortgage payments for the nightlife, entertainment and hospitality industries. Some have seen their entire livelihoods disappear overnight, intensifying the feeling that culture and the arts in this nation are not viewed as a valuable - and deeply necessary part of society - by the State.
On Monday, it was announced by the Government that laws on opening hours for pubs and nightclubs will be modernised under Minister Helen McEntee's Justice Plan 2021.
Minister McEntee said the reforms are aimed at helping businesses massively impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns to “get back on their feet” following their huge sacrifices made for public health.
Staggered and extended closing times are under consideration, a reform of trading laws for the sale of alcohol in pubs and off-licences, amended Sunday trading hours and the possibility of a new annual nightclub permit being created to allow the spaces to open past 2:30am. New categories of alcohol licences for cultural venues such as art galleries and theatres are also being mooted.
In response to the announcement, Hot Press spoke to Sunil Sharpe - Dublin DJ and Give Us The Night representative - as well as Bonytonic's Trevor O'Shea, The Event Industry Association of Ireland (EIAI) and well-known Dublin venues The Academy and the Button Factory.
Give Us The Night have long advocated for the establishment of a National Task Force on the night-time economy, added supports for youth culture, stakeholder workshops, the amendment of trading hours, modernisation of venue licensing, the abolition of special exemption orders, tackling festival voids, effective state help and the planning of multi-use spaces, zoning and pop-up events.
The repeal of the Licensing Act, the Registration of Clubs Act and the 1935 Dance Hall Act has been a primary target for the organisation, and Sunil Sharpe especially.
"Within the Night-Time Economy Task Force, a lot of groundwork has been put in to help positively reshape the nightlife experience for everyone," the group tweeted following the announcement.
"With the right plan in place, we can get nightlife right once and for all. Night-time should be a celebration of life and our surroundings. We want communities to celebrate their towns and cities at night rather than avoid them. Changes must happen swiftly to help the industry rebuild."
"People in our industry and community are at a really low ebb, and news like this in the mainstream media has given them hope," Sunil Sharpe tells Hot Press.
"Communication towards our industry in general has been poor since the beginning of the pandemic, and we really welcome Minister McEntee's announcement. It's a bit of recognition for the night-time industry too, and what is needed in order to give it a chance to regrow and thrive in the future. Still, the industry will need support in the meantime. No-one has an idea when we will reopen, and it's most important that venues will survive to still be here in the future, to enjoy the benefits of new legislation."
Sharpe is painfully aware that momentum must be maintained in order to secure the legislation over time.
"Generally, this is part of a commitment made in the Programme for Government in relation to the reform of our licensing laws. The key now is that this area is prioritised. It's not going to be simply a few amendments to an existing act, it is primary legislation, and that takes time. So is ultra important that the Department keep this moving and prioritise it," Sunil continues.
"We have a chance to finally get nightlife right, which won't all come overnight, but this will be a very solid start I believe."
SURVIVING THE SEASON
Trevor O'Shea of Bodytonic is the proprietor of The Bernard Shaw, The Back Page, The Square Ball, Wigwam and Jam Park. Consistently active in seeking changes in the laws relating to Ireland's nightlife culture and hospitality industry, O'Shea remains optimistic about this week's news.
"I don't think the amendments are a knee-jerk reaction to COVID. I think the Minister for Justice and Minister for Culture have both said from the outset that this type of reform was coming," O'Shea comments.
"It's good to see that they're taking the next steps because it's difficult to put these types of policies into legislation. It's one thing to announce changes now, but it's another thing to enact the bill. The laws are so archaic and unfavourable - anything is better than nothing. At the same time, this is a great chance for us to create concrete reform. I'm optimistic about going even further than the current announcement, but if the Government did everything on the list, it will make a huge difference.
"The kind of thing that the Department of Justice are offering to do would place Ireland in line with the rest of Europe," Trevor says of the proposals. "It's not radical international reform."
Established in 2000, Bodytonic was borne out of frustration on the part of its founder. It later flourished into a company which now takes part in a host of venues, music events and food and drink festivals. O'Shea presented his ideas to the Night-Time Economy Task Force from a small venue perspective, and made sure to mention three core areas which the Government need to address in order for Ireland's nightlife to become sustainable.
"This was pre-COVID but it's essential post-COVID," he explains. "One was insurance costs, the second issue was later opening times for nightclubs, and lastly, nightclubs need to open until 5am or 6am. The opening times of nightclubs have become so similar to bars and restaurants that there was almost no difference and yet you pay €450 a night just to be a club. That's why nightclubs in Ireland have been dying for 10 years, basically. Costs have become so high, we couldn't serve later to distinguish ourselves from other entities; it was just a zero sum game. That's why so many clubs have closed down."
With the Government addressing two of these changes - later hours and the license fees - Trevor believes that more venues will be able to open as a result of the improvements.
"Whether you're a DJ, band, record label or comedy collective; you'll create culture if you have placed to do it. For an industry that's really on its knees, this is a timely announcement from the Department of Justice. If Micheál Martin is serious about opening in mid-summer, that would be very tough for those in the hospitality and nightlife industries, but we'll live to fight another day."
CATCHING UP TO EUROPE
Speaking to Dublin music venues such as Button Factory and The Academy, the boost couldn't have landed at a better time. Club promoters and workers in these venues have had their lives put on hold, and are hoping for the public's support when lockdown restrictions ease as well as the State's support.
"The Button Factory welcomes any proposed initiative designed to boost or support the live entertainment sector, which has been decimated throughout the course of this pandemic," Zach from the venue told Hot Press.
"In the medium to long term, extended trading hours will certainly accelerate the regeneration of our industry, but this also needs to be coupled with an extension of the lower level of VAT, in order to eventually bring us back to pre-covid levels of prosperity. In the short term, the government now need to focus on delivering the financial supports, promised to the sector as part of the 2021 budget, to ensure that venues can stay afloat until the time it is deemed safe for us to reopen our doors to the public."
The Academy's Ryan Roe also drew a comparison between the nightlife habits of our fellow Europeans and Ireland's current, regressive laws.
"This news is very welcome and gives us hope that Dublin is progressing towards a more European outlook, where clubs, music venues and hospitality businesses are at the centre of a city’s fabric. Ireland’s archaic licensing laws have been in need of change for a long time and we feel this will greatly improve the quality of the entertainment on offer and help increase the overall safety of Dublin at night time."
The Event Industry Association of Ireland (EIAI) also noted the opportunity to utilise the gap in the nightlife market to change cities as a whole while speaking to Hot Press.
"Antiquated systems and processes associated with Licensing Laws, the Public Dance Halls Act 1935 and Public Health Amendment Act 1890 have impacted, and in some cases, hindered festivals, live music, and entertainment of all descriptions - events that form a crucial part of our night-time economy," Elaine O'Connor, co-founder of the EIAI told Hot Press.
"By extending and, more crucially, staggering closing times in pubs, bars, nightclubs, and venues relevant stakeholders will be enabled to strategically manage and control usage of the public realm, while responding to both the local market and special occasions. We look forward to the day when local stakeholders are able to strategically “event manage” their towns and cities as we believe this will lead directly to a safer and more enjoyable experience for all.”
The overall feeling while discussing the matter with venue promoters, DJs, and nightlife industry workers is a sense of unyielding optimism - despite everything they have been through in the last 12 months. Holding the Government accountable to deliver on these promises is of huge importance, as well as giving venues public support while respecting public health when they begin to lift their shutters once more.
It's worth noting that the changes set to be implemented in Ireland's nightlife economy will not take place until 2022.
“It’s not all about having longer opening hours and giving people longer access to pubs and nightclubs and cultural venues,” Minister McEntee said. “It’s about making sure that we have a variety and that we can support our industry. The reform is one part of the conversation."
The attention now turns to the publication of the Night-Time Economy Taskforce's report next month.