Pubs can't be let wither like post offices and garda stations
When I take up the role of president of the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) I will be the first female to hold this position. For decades women have played a crucial role in the Irish pub, working behind the bar and managing premises.
It is a symbolic breakthrough that the Irish pub trade now has a female at the helm. But symbolism alone will not address the issues we face. It does not matter what gender the president is if they don't work hard to fight for those we represent.
I run a pub in Nenagh called Rocky O'Sullivan's, along with my husband Jim, and it has been in the family for four generations. Ours, like 90pc of all Irish pubs, is very much a family-run pub, facing the same business challenges as every other small business owner. Nenagh is a town that has experienced its economic troughs and peaks over the last decade.
There is no doubt the last couple of years have proved difficult for many and the publican is no exception with many pub closures and job losses.
Some 1,300 pubs have closed since 2005. Make no mistake about it, many pubs are still facing significant challenges.
The main factors effecting sustainability are the lack of disposable income and the emigration of many of our young people. The situation is compounded when you consider that some pubs, particularly rural establishments, serve smaller catchment areas and have very poor transport services. The impact of tighter drink driving legislation is acutely felt in this regard. High costs continue to hamper publicans with Sky TV, IMRO and commercial rates continually rising.
However, we must not sit back and sulk. We cannot expect others to come to our rescue. We must extol the virtues of the great institution that is the Irish pub.
We have been to the forefront in the launch of a recent campaign – Support Your Local. The drinks industry supports 92,000 jobs, buys €1.1bn of Irish inputs and our pubs offer a unique hospitality experience, renowned internationally. Take the case of Co Mayo – where our AGM is being held today – where 3,718 jobs are supported by the drinks industry contributing €84m in payroll per annum.
There are issues on a wider level which concern our industry that need to be urgently addressed and the Government's failure to implement health codes deeply disappoints us. I urge the Government to address the sale and promotion of cheap alcohol, introduce the ban on price-based advertising and bring in the statutory code of practice in respect of the sale of alcohol in a segregation area in supermarkets and convenience stores. This is a massive social and health issue which cannot be ignored any longer. The Government has promised to introduce such measures but has yet to put action to its words.
The industry also needs relief from the current penal rate of excise. At a time when we are enticing more tourists, we already have one of the highest levels of excise in the EU. The difference in excise and VAT on a bottle of Irish whiskey in Ireland, compared to Spain, is €16.53. The last thing the consumer needs is more tax and I would encourage people to remember that excise is a tax on the public not on the publican.
Publicans remain united and resilient and are focusing on changed offerings with an increased emphasis on events. Pubs are embracing the digital era, many are already embracing social media channels as a way of communicating with their customers and driving their business.
Publicans remain at the forefront of organising and supporting local festivals and are hosting events from comedy clubs to card clubs. They have diversified their offering to embrace the latest trends in food and drink from craft beers to gastro pubs.
Publicans are deeply entrenched in the communities they serve and support local sports clubs and teams to the tune of €3.5m every year.
Importantly, the pub is a key player in Ireland's tourism sector which is seen as a major player in any recovery. Some 80pc of tourists use the pub for food and entertainment. In a recent Failte Ireland survey of over 1,500 visitors to Ireland, 83pc of those surveyed said they had listened to live Irish music in a pub – the number one attraction.
Let us not forget as well that the Irish pub has previously been voted the number one tourist destination by the 'Lonely Planet Guide'.
As other services like post offices, tourist offices and garda stations are being closed there will be a further reliance on pubs in many areas for essential services.
The pub is of vital economic and social importance and through innovation, hard work and meeting new consumer demands we will ensure that we not alone survive but thrive.
Noreen O'Sullivan will be elected the first female president of the Vintners Federations of Ireland (VFI) today.