News David Quinn

Thursday 29 September 2016

Publicans want to have their cake and eat it too during religious holidays

Published 22/01/2016 | 02:30

Tourists outside a pub in Temple Bar on Good Friday last year. Irish vintners are campaigning to have the holy day turned into a normal trading day.
Tourists outside a pub in Temple Bar on Good Friday last year. Irish vintners are campaigning to have the holy day turned into a normal trading day.

In the years after independence, Ireland did its utmost to remove every visible trace of British rule from the land. For the last few decades, and with growing intensity over the last few years, we have been doing the same to our Christian heritage. The latest target is the restriction on alcohol sales on Good Friday.

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This has long been a bugbear for restaurateurs and publicans, and for understandable reasons. It gets in the way of their making money on that day.

Mindful of the upcoming election, the vintners have called on the Government to make Good Friday a normal trading day for them.

Their press release this week described the law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Good Friday as an "archaic and discriminatory law which has no place in a modern country".

It painted a picture of thousands of forlorn tourists wandering our streets on that day, wondering why they can't get a drink.

It said that on Good Friday this year (March 25), "Ireland will play Switzerland in a friendly soccer international" and 50,000 soccer fans will face the same predicament as the tourists.

Donal O'Keefe of the Licensed Vintners Association lamented: "The Easter 2016 celebrations - and now this soccer international - provide a terrific opportunity to showcase our capital city and for the country as a whole to say we are open for business. It would be ridiculous if the entire hospitality sector was again forced to close on Good Friday 2016 because of a law passed in 1927."

You can sense Mr O'Keefe's sense of outrage and embarrassment at the thought of Ireland supposedly making a fool of itself yet again because of our Catholic/Christian heritage.

The vintners give the impression that Ireland is unique in placing restrictions upon trade for reasons that are or were religious, but it is not so. Other countries go much further than us. Germany comes to mind.

Germany places heavy restrictions on Sunday trading. Each region is allowed to have its own regulations, but the general rule is that shops can only open on a few Sundays each year (mostly around Christmas) and for only five or six hours on those days.

How would the vintners cope with that? Admittedly the German regulations affect shops, not pubs and restaurants, but the principle is the same. Should anything be allowed to get in the way of normal trading? Above all, should a regulation that has a religious origin be allowed to get in the way of normal trading?

Presumably the vintners would answer no to each question. The vintners would claim you are making a rule for everyone whether they like that rule or not and regardless of their beliefs. Instead you should leave it up to each individual person to decide for themselves how they want to observe a particular day.

If a person doesn't want to drink on Good Friday, no-one is forcing them. But don't let them stand in the way of those who do want to drink.

And if a German doesn't want to shop on Sunday, then don't shop, but let those who do want to shop, shop away.

Isn't this the reasonable position to take? Why would anyone want to insist otherwise?

It is not as simple as all that, however. When a particular kind of day changes character, it changes for everyone and not just some people. This is why in various European countries, not just Germany, there has been a lot of resistance to turning Sunday into one more shopping day like it is here.

The big reason, and one supported by many trade unions, is that such a move affects many workers and families no matter what they want or believe.

If you work in the retail sector and you are asked to work on a Sunday, it can be hard to say no. If you have to go into work on a Sunday, that Sunday by definition can't be a family day.

There are also more subtle effects. It is becoming harder and harder for ordinary families to find time together in any case, including on Sundays. When family members can go shopping on a Sunday, it becomes harder still.

Sunday as a day off, as a day when we break with the normal routine of the rest of the week, does have a religious origin but it would be completely irrational to dismiss the idea behind Sunday as a day of rest for that reason alone.

In Ireland almost no attempt was made to prevent Sunday from being turned into a normal shopping day. The result is that Sunday feels a lot less different from any other day of the week than it used to. It has changed its character for everyone, like it or not, and not just for some people.

Why was no attempt made? Probably because of our now typical reaction against any law that smacks of religion.

Good Friday is one of the very last days not entirely conquered by commerce and in this case by the sale of alcohol. That's why the vintners have their eye on it.

As they say, they want it to be a normal trading day. They complain about lost business, lost tax revenue, and frustrated customers.

But why don't the Germans worry about this? Or the Norwegians? Or other places with restrictions on Sunday trading like parts of France and Spain?

It's because they won't allow themselves to be completely dictated to by commerce and because they don't suffer from our massive cultural cringe concerning any practice that has a religious origin.

The new Catholic Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Alphonsus Cullinan, has rightly pointed out that the vintners are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

In a statement, he says that lots of public holidays have a religious origin and therefore, to be consistent, the vintners should want them all abolished in the name of 'pluralism'.

He says: "Protestors against the ban on the sale of alcohol in pubs and shops on Good Friday cannot have it both ways. They cannot object to Good Friday adversely affecting their trade but rejoice at the other religious feasts which greatly increase their trade."

In fact, Easter itself boosts their trade but they're not about to call for the abolition of Easter Monday.

The reason for that is, of course, that they do want it both ways. They like a religious day when it increases business, and want it quashed when it doesn't. That's because they want every day to be equally commercial and for there to be no days that get in the way of that. In this view, God belongs in a box and money is king.

Irish Independent

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