Time for some creative thinking on Sunday opening

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

The sale of alcohol is restricted over the Easter weekend
The sale of alcohol is restricted over the Easter weekend

There was no sign this Easter of a rising in Northern Ireland’s licensed trade. Pubs and clubs complained about restrictive Easter opening hours, several publicity stunts were staged over the holiday weekend and a lobbying effort has been launched calling on Stormont for reform - but both the letter and spirit of the law were obeyed.

Alas, untying the swings in these parts often takes a bit more gumption. The flowering of Belfast’s nightlife from the mid-1990s was driven by entrepreneurs exploiting loopholes in alcohol, entertainment and restaurant regulation - until the PSNI over-reacted with its ‘Get Home Safe’ campaign.

Sunday trading more generally did not start until shops forced the issue in the late 1990s, by opening in the run-up to Christmas and simply paying the associated fine. The ‘Christmas Rising’, which was linked to the arrival of major retailers from Britain, hastened a sense that the Sabbatarian regime had collapsed.

In 1997, after some token DUP pickets and protests, the old Stormont law was swept aside by direct rule ministers and replaced with a legislative order introducing de facto Sunday afternoon opening. We do not tend to list this among the items of social progress delivered by civil disobedience. Yet, bizarrely, it is our most transformative example in modern times - as anyone who recalls the awful tedium of a traditional Ulster Sunday can confirm.

Unfortunately, Sunday mornings remain ‘traditional’ and this is increasingly absurd in Belfast, where hordes of bemused tourists can be observed wandering around with nothing to do. Most small shops can open all day but the importance of large stores to town centres and shopping centres makes this unviable.

Belfast Chamber of Commerce is now proposing that the city be declared a holiday resort, allowing large shops to open all day on up to 18 Sundays a year between March and October. This exemption in the 1997 order was meant for places like Newcastle and Portrush but has more recently been used in Newry and Downpatrick. With almost every town claiming to be a tourist destination, it is a loophole that could unravel the whole system.

Because 1997 was pre-devolution, enforcement of Sunday opening was handed to district councils. They must designate a place as a holiday resort, then each retailer must notify the council of their extra opening times two weeks in advance.

Unionist councils remain hostile to Sunday trading, presumably for religious reasons. The Belfast Chamber of Commerce proposal has already been denounced by UUP and DUP representatives.

However, nationalist councils have also taken part in a crackdown on Sunday opening since the supercouncils came into existence last year. It is thought that major UK retailers have demanded action against independently-owned large convenience stores - what everyone outside Belfast calls ‘the garage’.

There is no point looking to Stormont for different thinking. After devolution, responsibility for the 1997 order passed to the Department of Social Development, currently under the DUP, which has a party policy against extending Sunday opening hours. If the DUP loses control of this department after May’s election, it will almost certainly retain the ability to block anything at executive and assembly level. Other parties will assist it for a mix of social, economic and religious reasons. A review of the law five years ago under an SDLP minister rejected liberalisation.

So it seems we are back at a point like the late 1990s, just before the Christmas Rising, when breaking a logjam of religious conservatism and commercial vested interests required a little extra imagination.

There are a number of exemptions in the 1997 order with interesting potential. One that particularly jumps out is for the sale of food, stores and other necessities “required by any person for a vessel” arriving or departing a port. Could Belfast’s shops open themselves for cruise passengers on this basis?

Declaring the entire city centre to be a Sunday morning “exhibition” might arguably circumvent restrictions, with the advantage that retailers could make this declaration themselves.

Farm shops have full exemption in the 1997 order, yet it makes no attempt to define ‘farm’. Tesco was in the news last week for creative use of the word ‘farm’. Could others be equally inventive?

I am by no means suggesting that anyone breaks the law. For one thing, the fine has been raised to a discouraging £50,000. But the furtive imposition of archaic religious views on others gives a moral and legal legitimacy to pushing the envelope.

Time for shop owners to seize their unfettered destiny.