Open-ing the door for the relaxing of strict liquor licensing rules

The Department for Communities has launched a consultation paper ahead of The 148th Open Golf Championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club in July
Linus Murray

THE Department for Communities has launched a consultation paper ahead of The 148th Open Golf Championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club in July. The purpose of the consultation paper is to gather public and industry opinion on a proposal to change Northern Ireland's liquor licensing laws in respect of ‘special events'.

With an estimated 190,000 expected to attend The Open in July, of which 55 per cent will be visitors from outside of Northern Ireland, the department is of the opinion that the proposed changes will benefit the hospitality and tourism sectors in Northern Ireland together with ensuring such events return in the future.

As it stands, occasional events such as The Open, the BBC Good Food Show and the Belfast City Hall Christmas Market, can only operate the sale of alcohol via an occasional licence under article 30 of the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.

An occasional licence allows the holder of a pub, hotel or restaurant licence to transport their licence temporarily to another venue or place for use there. It can only be used in association with a legitimate occasional event specified in the legislation as a “function of an occasional nature which [is] organised by any body established for social, charitable or benevolent purposes or for furthering the common interests of persons associated with any trade, profession, educational or cultural activity, game or sport.” Difficulty therefore arises where the function is purely commercial or falls within a grey area where the law does not specifically cater for it.

Further, occasional licences place restrictions on operation hours to between 11.30am and 1am, Monday to Saturday and from 12.30pm to 12midnight on Sundays. For The Open, bearing in mind visitors will be on site from about 7.30am, this will mean they have to curtail their usual hospitality offering to within those hours.

Visitors will also be prevented from buying alcohol to bring home with them as occasional licences do not permit off-sales and this means The Open will be prevented from having its usual scotch whiskey sales points. This restriction has also been highlighted by events such as the Belfast Christmas Markets where people can drink at the event but vendors are prevented from selling bottles of local produce for consumption off the premises.

Should the proposed changes be given the go-ahead, the effect would be that the department would have the power to vary permitted hours for the sale of alcoholic drinks at special events and have the power to permit the sale of alcoholic drinks for consumption off the premises. There will undoubtedly be some controversy over what is classed as a special event and what isn't.

At present, it remains to be seen whether the department's consultation will lead to any changes to the licensing laws in time for The Open in July, and how the industry will react if the changes come about. Whilst any change is likely to be welcomed to a certain extent, the fact that the consultation has only come about due to The Open has angered many in the Northern Ireland pub and hospitality sector. There is likely to be an element of frustration by Northern Ireland's local operators that the proposed changes will probably not benefit them and will be reserved for large scale international events.

:: Linus Murray ( is a director, commercial at O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors (02890 321 000)

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