Whatever about the sufferings of the country’s pubs and restaurants thanks to Lockdown restrictions, they pale to a fading stain compared to the trials and tribulations of the nightclub industry and its patrons of all ages.
For unlike the hospitality industry generally, the country’s nightclubs effectively closed down for the foreseeable future, locking off the lasers and rolling up the pavements with the onset of the pandemic.
Where other sectors of the hospitality industry find themselves pondering whether or not they’ll see the light of day again before Autumn, the country’s nightclubs cannot spy-out any kindred glimmer at the end of what’s become a seemingly endless tunnel.
In the UK, the #SaveNightclubs campaign group found that only 10% of nightclub operators expected their business to survive restrictions longer than four months.
So, with the nightclubs gone dark, now might be as good-a-time as any to try and ensure that when the country’s nightclubs do eventually reopen, a revised legal and economic infrastructure will ensure that they can do so in a more healthy fiscal environment than was the case even before Covid-19.
This seems to be happening.
Legislation on the opening hours for pubs and nightclubs is to be modernised under proposals contained in the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee’s Statement of Strategy 2021-2023 Justice Plan.
“Over the course of our Plan, we will modernise our licencing laws to support the development of the Night-time economy so our cities can take their place among the cultural capitals of the world,” stated the Minister.
These sectors, she believes, will revive and she will introduce reforms to support the development and regulation of the Night-time economy including modernising the licensing laws.
And her Department will engage with the work of the Night-time Economy Taskforce, set up at last July by the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin TD to examine and address the challenges facing the development of a vibrant Night-time culture and economy.
These challenges include the present licensing legislation in regard to nightclubs & late bars as well as broader issues such as transport and the diversity of cultural activities and this is likely to be presented to the Government this month.
To help contribute towards the development of a vibrant Night-time culture and economy the Dublin Nightclub and Late Bar Association was set up last June when many businesses, including restaurants, were permitted to reopen following the first Lockdown – but not nightclubs.
It was recently subsumed into the Licensed Vintners Association’s Nightclub & Late Bar Committee.
“It was born out of the frustration” explains Dave Morrissey, co-owner of Lost Lane and the Porterhouse, Nassau Street, who’s also Chairman of the LVA’s Dublin Nightclub & Late Bar Committee and also LVA Vice Chairman, “The stakeholders felt that we were being ignored and were not on any Government roadmap to reopening.
“We’ve formulated a policy document which we submitted to the Late Night Government Task Force last November.”
The association comprises late bar & nightclub operators in Dublin only and the policy document covers a number of the more long-term issues.
In 2007 the price of a Special Exemption Order was increased from €220 to €410 per night for permitting premises to stay open until 2.30am – and that’s before lawyer’s fees get involved.
“We proposed that SEO applications be simplified,” he adds, “Currently it involves attending court on a Wednesday and applying for a maximum of four weeks of SEOs. Perhaps an online system may save Court, Garda and Legal costs.”
According to research carried out by Barry O’Sullivan, the former Chief Executive of the now defunct Irish Nightclub Industry Association, in 2007 there were 90,000 SEOs and 1,600 Dance Licences.
Ten years later this figure had been driven down to just 37,500 SEOs and just 930 Dance Licences. This has resulted in the government losing €5 million a year in revenue. Nevertheless, in pre-pandemic 2019 SEOs still generated over €14 million in revenue for the courts.
The Committee therefore proposed that the existing Late Bar SEOs keep their 2.30am closing time but suggested that the cost should revert to the previous €220 per night. It proposed too that there should be a new ‘Nightclub’ SEO available to premises that have a Full Seven Day Publicans Licence which will permit a closing time of 5am at a cost similar to the current SEO levy of €410 per night.
“We felt that budgeting towards already-strained Garda resources would be an issue” Dave explains, “if the figures asked for were reduced below €410 it might be grounds for ignoring our well thought-out request.”
Trading hours proposed would be the same for the seven days of the week with Sunday treated just like every other day.
One of the four Taskforce questions put to stakeholders asks, “What do you see as the key attributes of a positive Night-time Economy? What does the best-case scenario for you (as a group) look like?”.
Here, the LVA would simply like to see a broad range of activities available to tourists as well as residents of Dublin.
“We feel there’s a need for not only late night bars and clubs but also more cultural activities like comedy, theatre and museums to open later into the evening,” says Dave, “We’d be more than happy to offer our venues for performances of evening events that promote The Arts.
“However our focus is to promote our businesses first and foremost as our experience extends to bar, club and live music events.”
This would also seem to cover the Taskforce’s second question to stakeholders: “What cultural, creative or other activities are currently missing from the Night-time Economy?”.
It’s third question asks, “What are the challenges for your particular group and others? Any suggested solutions?”.
Obviously the current challenges the Association’s members face all relate to the pandemic.
But it’s also looking beyond the present.
“Once there’s a way forward and we get back to business our biggest challenge will be to address the claims culture and crazy payouts awarded by the Courts and Settlements agreed between legal practitioners and underwriters,” says Dave.
The fourth Taskforce question posits, “What, in your view, is a best practice example of a successful Night-time Economy internationally and/or are there international examples we can draw from?”.
The Association notes that in a lot of European cities the clubs can stay open until 5am or 6am for a minimal fee.
“We see Dublin as similar to London, Berlin, Paris, Rome and Madrid,” says Dave, “All have booming late night activities that run ’till at least 5am.”
The Committee would envisage a 5am closing time for nightclubs here with 30 minutes drinking-up time so that nightclubs would be cleared by 5.30am.
Against Local Authority administration of Licensing hours
The Committee reflects the LVA’s belief that the Irish Courts’ current administering of Licensing Law is “very fair” and the suggestion that Local Authorities should now administer Late Licences is not welcome.
“We, as a group of stakeholders, are by-and-large happy with the current system of interaction with the Garda, Fire Officer and Court System,” explains Dave, “It’s expensive but fair. We’d not like to see this process transfer to a Council-based system as we feel that it may become too committee-driven and would cause our members problems.”
The Association believes too that the existing facility to grant licences for Special Events is fit for purpose as it requires Garda/Fire Officer approval and any objectors/residents can raise their concerns for adjudication by the presiding Judge.
Dave concludes, “We’ve made our submission to the Task Force with one single voice for this section of our Industry”.
Not too long ago, Wexford Senator Malcolm Byrne raised concern that young people are not experiencing the “rites of passage” enjoyed by other previously youthful generations due to the global coronavirus outbreak.
As we move out of Covid restrictions this year, expect to hear more from this sector of our industry.