A transformation of licencing laws could sound the death knell for rural pubs, it has been argued.
The Sale of Alcohol Bill proposed a major modernisation for the licencing laws in Ireland.
This includes ending the extinguishment requirement where a new operator cannot enter the pub trade without first acquiring an existing licence.
The Joint Committee of Justice heard concerns around this from the industry.
Donall O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Licensed Vintners Federation said they welcomed many sections of the Bill, including the extension of trading hours as “appropriate for a modern economy”, but raised concerns over non-licenced premises being able to apply for late trading licences.
He also raised concerns about cultural amenity licences, describing a risk of them being used as a “backdoor entry into the licenced trade”.
“Our concerns are based on previous negative experiences and abuse of theatre licences and the potential for an increase in the total number of licenced outlets in urban areas,” he told the committee.
However, Mr O’Keeffe said their main concern is the proposed change to the extinguishing requirement, which currently means a new operator cannot enter the pub trade without first acquiring an existing licence.
He said Ireland is “severely overpubbed”, and there are 6,800 pub licences, and 1,800 pubs have closed since 2005, “confirming a total oversupply”.
“The combination of too many pubs, particularly in rural Ireland, together with falling demand means that overall pub numbers will continue to fall, irrespective of any changes in the extinguishing requirement,” he said.
He added: “Removing the extinguishment requirement will not achieve the minister’s objective of enhancing rural pub viability and will prove to be a failed political initiative.
“Full liberalisation of the pub trade would be a serious policy mistake.”
Paul Clancy, chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI), echoed concerns around ending the extinguishment requirement.
“Our members are greatly concerned about this section, if enacted as presented, new entrants to the pub market will no longer need to extinguish an existing licence to commence trading,” he said.
“As a consequence the VFI argues that the number of pubs in rural Ireland will decrease – the exact opposite of what the minister for justice says is intended to happen.”
He said pub numbers in rural areas are in decline, which he said is “not because of the lack of licences”.
He urged Government to protect this “valuable cultural asset” which attracts tourists.
“The typical pub is a community centre as much as a pub, and the publican plays a vital role in that local community,” he said.
“In fact, the cultural value of our pubs is so important that the VFI is in the process of applying for pubs to join the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage which protects the world’s living heritage.
“Our message is keep rural pubs alive, we hope this Bill will be amended to help secure that aim.”
Matt McGranaghan from the Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland described local pubs are often the first introduction for artists to performing in public.
He said many artists are reliant on licensed premises for employment opportunities.
“The music and entertainment industry is intrinsically linked to and affected by the licencing system in Ireland,” he said.
He welcomed what he termed an attempt to modernise “antiquated licencing laws” but expressed concern around the definition of cultural venues.
“We are concerned that the lack of concise definitions could provide increased competition against licenced premises and potentially decrease employment opportunities and diminish the available working days and nights for gigs,” he told the committee.
Meanwhile, representing the nightclub industry, Sunil Sharpe of Give Us The Night, described a downsizing of his industry.
He said there are currently around 85 nightclubs in Ireland now, compared with 328 in 2008.
He insisted that is not simply down to changing social trends or rising running costs, but accused the Government of “going out of its way to obstruct the industry by providing no workable licence, ending late opening on Sundays, and piling on unaffordable licencing costs which caused many venues to shut”.
“It cleared the dancefloor,” he added.
On the latest Bill, he urged lower licencing costs.
Peter Mosley from Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland welcomed many of the measures in the Bill, including the abolition of the licence extinguishment requirement, which he said led to “anti-competitiveness in the market”.
He described challenges in his sector in finding a route to market for their products.
“There is and always will be a place for the traditional Irish pub… but as a modern society, we are changing and evolving and this includes the settings in which we may want to consume both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks,” he said.
“Our members believe that the key to delivering on consumer demand is to open up the market to allow non-traditional channels to proliferate.”