Northern Ireland

Bookies' Sunday opening marks a complete transformation of social change

Long gone are the days when parks and playgrounds in Northern Ireland were locked up on Sundays
Long gone are the days when parks and playgrounds in Northern Ireland were locked up on Sundays

A DECISION earlier this week to give Royal Assent to laws allowing bookies and bingo halls to open on Sundays in Northern Ireland marks a complete transformation of social change over the last 40 years.

I'm of the vintage (having just celebrated a 'big' birthday) to remember playground swings being chained up on Sundays. Just in case, woe betide, children were tempted to go out and have fun on the Sabbath.

The closure of those parks, and the prohibition of dancing, drinking or cinema attendance, left towns and centres virtually derelict in the 60s and 70s.

But since those (with hindsight repressive) days, the north's well-earned reputation of 'Never on a Sunday' has been eroded, to the extent that people can now do just about anything on the Sabbath that they can on a weekday.

Religion is still important to many people. But while Northern Ireland remains worship-going more than any other part of Britain or the Republic, the majority of people (often after church or chapel) can now work, shop, drink, play - and bet - on a Sunday. It is no longer different from the rest of the week.

The mould has been shattering for years anyway, starting with the Sunday opening of pubs back in 1987 (they hadn't been allowed to pull pints on the Sabbath for 64 years, since just after Partition).

In the years since, other changes have followed.

European football's governing body Uefa decreed that Northern Ireland must play international matches on a Sunday. Rugby at Ravenhill had already happened by that stage - as had race meetings at Down Royal and Downpatrick. Cinemas were opening too.

The Lord's Day Observance Society believed this all to be a violation of the sanctity of the Sabbath, and even into the new Millennium, they often held religious services outside various sporting or social venues to show the depth of their feeling about the issue.

But their influence has been gradually diminishing, and there has been no retreat to the desolation of the 50s in the name of God and morality.

Just last October, reform of Northern Ireland’s liquor licensing laws was hailed as a significant forward step for the hospitality sector, with legislation meaning establishments can extend opening and drinking-up times, and all additional restrictions on opening hours over Easter weekend were removed too.

Now comes Sunday opening for bookies (although approval came so swiftly last Tuesday that it may be some weeks yet before the bigger chains are able to organise staffing rotas and take punters' bets).

But while Northern Ireland has finally moved with the times, there are some restrictions still in place which are preventing cities like Belfast and Derry from becoming true weekend break destinations like London, Paris or Rome, where you can browse museums and galleries on a Sunday morning, and also shop in the big supermarkets, which generally can only trade here from 1pm.

You imagine it's only a matter of time before changes come there too . . .