Northern Ireland

Last orders for late opening in Northern Ireland?

Beer at a city bar
Image caption Only pubs that continue to serve meals or provide entertainment can serve alcohol after 11pm

Is it last orders at the bar for late night opening in Northern Ireland?

Pubs are generally allowed to stay open until 11pm with an additional 30 minutes drinking-up time.

They can also apply to a court to stay open until 1am if they provide food or entertainment.

A recent ruling in the Court of Appeal has upheld guidelines issued by a district judge in Fermanagh that when the food and entertainment stops, the sale of alcohol should also stop.

The Licensing (NI) Order 1996 states that the sale of alcohol must not be the main reason for staying open.

The judge was hearing a case brought by a Fermanagh publican who was prosecuted for selling alcohol after 11pm.

The publican, who has now left the business, claimed a musician failed to turn up due to bad weather, but that the bar normally had live music on that night of the week.

The police say a large number of pubs in Fermanagh hold late opening hours seven nights a week, when only a few actually provide entertainment or food on those nights.

There is also uncertainty if discos, quizzes, darts or pool leagues are considered to be "live entertainment".

Tony Martin is a publican in Irvinestown who runs a disco in Floyd's Bar every Friday and Saturday night.

He has a late licence until 1am but he was visited by the police just after midnight and told to close.

"We had quite a crowd in at the time, but he still insisted that the disco was not live entertainment and that we had to shut our bar immediately," he said.

"You can imagine the customers' reaction at that time of night, you know, they were just getting into the swing of things.

"The last half an hour of the night, that's when you make your money. We lost the best part of a Friday night because of it."

The police say they want to work with licensed premises to clearly establish when they can legally open late.

Superintendent Alywin Barton said: "There's a significant number of premises which have additional permitted hours for all seven days of the week.

"Let's face it, we all know of licensed premises besides us or close to us which quite frankly do not serve substantial refreshment, do not have live entertainment most certainly on a Monday to Thursday night.

"For those four nights it begs the question, why do you need additional permitted hours?

"The police in Fermanagh are not in the game of closing public houses. We are not in the game of disrupting livelihoods and businesses.

"This is a mature discussion around what in reality is actually required and needed and we are completely committed to providing a safe healthy social economy."

He added that the police were "absolutely not" being kill-joys.

Tony Martin has now been told by the police that for the time being he can continue to serve alcohol until 1am on disco nights.

"But alcohol is only to be served to people who are coming in for the disco not just coming in to drink alcohol so it's a very, very grey area", he said.

On Thursday night police, publicans and politicians met in Irvinestown to discuss the issue.

Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster which represents the licensed trade, said they feared the restrictions will cost jobs and damage the economy.

"The recession has hit hard, the change in drinking habits has hit hard, he said.

"We're actually the largest tourism asset - 80% of all tourists visit a pub, 70% of all tourists eat in a pub. We have a huge role to play in the economy.

"A lot of small pubs cannot afford to pay large bands and groups to be in them."

He said he hoped a review of licensing regulations will look at the issue.

The police say the law is clear and that they have received complaints from residents and other licensed premises.

Mr Neill said: "We've always recognised there are rogue premises but the majority are well-behaved and the majority run very professional businesses and invest a lot of money.

"What we have to make sure is for a few rogue premises that the other legitimate businesses don't suffer."

He is predicting that as many as 200 pubs will close in Northern Ireland over the next 12 months and any measure that forces a pub to close early, losing valuable trading hours, will have a damaging effect on many local businesses.

For many publicans looking to the future of the licensed trade, their glass is half empty.

More on this story