How Give Us The Night are challenging the status quo

Sunil Sharpe from Give Us The Night talks about Ireland’s outdated approach to nightlife, the cultural value of clubs and changing legislation

It is no secret that the sorry state of nightlife in Dublin has been a topic of heated discussion in recent years. The closure of some of the city’s most treasured venues such as Hangar, District 8, and most recently the beloved Bernard Shaw has resulted in devastation and frustration among Dubliners. There is a distinct feeling that not everyone’s nightlife preferences are being catered for, and that the creativity and vibrancy of the Dublin scene is disappearing. Combatting this is volunteer group Give Us the Night, an organisation which aims to modernise the Irish nightlife scene by tackling the legislative issues preventing it from growing. Sunil Sharpe from Give Us the Night spoke to Trinity News and discussed what exactly is stunting the growth of the nightlife industry, the cultural implications of disappearing nightlife and what can be done to affect change. 

The impact of legislation

At the heart of this issue is the restrictive and outdated legislation which controls night venues. “All venues at night are operating under pub legislation from the last century,” says Sharpe. Change surrounding this legislation has long been campaigned for: “The Department of Justice and Equality has just flatly ignored everyone on this, including recommendations that they previously appeared to have agreed on themselves.” It’s not hard to see why there is a growing sense of frustration towards authorities regarding nightlife legislation. Sharpe cites the remnants of “old Catholic Ireland” as a factor inhibiting progression, adding that “it’s somehow still normal for authorities to completely restrict or disregard activities that they don’t personally enjoy or understand”. 

There is also some tension between emerging alternative venues and the traditional pub scene. “Nightlife is being held back for many reasons, not least because of a pub lobby that thinks it owns night time and has prevented the creation of any new licence types.” The new types of venues appearing around the city represent a threat to the traditional venues, and therefore it benefits them to suppress their growth. However, pubs are suffering now that the industry is generally shrinking. The industry would “benefit from more vibrancy in our towns and cities at night”. Sharpe suggests that pubs should “work with alternative venues instead of against them” to bring about a more prosperous nightlife scene in which both types of venue can co-exist and thrive. 

“There is a distinct feeling that not everyone’s nightlife preferences are being catered for, and that the creativity and vibrancy of the Dublin scene is disappearing.”

Sharpe also addressed the place of alcohol in the discussion around nightlife: “Alcohol consumption has been and will continue to be an issue in the debate, however, it’s really not going to be a problem when the laws change.” He referenced more forward thinking approaches taken by other European countries, which have only worked to their benefit. In contrast, Ireland has completely rejected any modernisation of its nightlife industry. “We’re literally the last country that still lives under a 1900s nightlife regime,” says Sharpe, a statement which puts into perspective just how far we have fallen behind on this issue in comparison with our European counterparts. 

The cultural importance of nightlife

One of the major causes for dismay regarding the ever-diminishing nightlife scene in Ireland is the lack of vitality associated with it. Many people feel creativity is being systematically suppressed through the closure of venues which cultivate it. Sharpe sums up common complaints, mentioning how “it seems like practically every space that brings people together and helps us to form communities in Dublin is being rubbed off the map”. Worse still, it would appear as though such spaces are being shut down in favour of hotels or office blocks, and with each one Dublin loses a little bit of charm. “The rapid acceleration of hotel development, for instance, in a small capital city like Dublin, has the ability to transform the feel of our city so quickly,” says Sharpe. “It’s becoming less and less recognisable to Dubliners, and for artists or musicians it’s rapidly losing its appeal as a place to live in.” Indeed there is a feeling among the people of Dublin that their city is being robbed of its colour, a sentiment echoed by Sharpe: “Maybe the dirty old town of Dublin is not one people would want to return to, but this sanitised ‘London look’ that the city seems to be edging towards is just the pits.” There is generally a lack of recognition of the need for a more culturally diverse nightlife scene on the part of the authorities. “As long as there are a few Irish bars serving Guinness and enough restaurants for daytime tourists to eat in, I don’t think the authorities or Fáilte Ireland really care too much beyond that.” This is in accordance with the feeling among Dubliners that the city is becoming a place that accommodates the needs of tourists rather than the needs of those that actually live here. 

The Bernard Shaw and residential conflicts

It is clear that a change in both attitudes and legislation is necessary if the nightlife industry is to develop in any positive way. One of the major topics of discussion is the conflicts which can arise between venues and the nearby residents. This was exhibited in the case of the recent closure of the Bernard Shaw, where noise complaints lodged by local residents to An Bord Pleanála played a significant role in the bar’s closure. Sharpe says in order to solve this problem there needs to be “acceptance from each side that both need to co-exist” and that “it takes some investment in sound-proofing and a little bit of realism from neighbours” to diffuse these conflicts. 

“…it’s somehow still normal for authorities to completely restrict or disregard activities that they don’t personally enjoy or understand.”

He also touches on the centralisation of Dublin nightlife. “Nightlife disappeared from the Dublin suburbs, to the point where it really only exists in the city centre now, which is proving problematic.” Better city planning would be a solution to this problem, however Sharpe recognises that this would be difficult to implement, observing that “we’re so far down the track now, and with so little space left that it’s becoming harder to imagine venues in the city that won’t be very close to neighbours without causing a disturbance”. It would appear that there’s no room for night venues in the heart of the city due to increasing development of hotels and office blocks, but the residential issue too makes it hard for them to exist on the fringes of the city.

One step forward would be the introduction of planning laws such as ‘Agent of Change’, suggests Sharpe. This would mean that developers would be responsible for the impact their residential building would have on already existing venues. For example, they would pay to soundproof the venue so as not to disturb residents. This would lessen the conflict between venue owners and local residents. Sharpe also suggests the introduction of a night mayor to mediate in situations in which these conflicts often arise. Night mayors have been introduced in cities such as London, Manchester, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris with great success.  He also finds it “suspect that An Bord Pleanála could overrule Dublin City Council in a case like The Bernard Shaw, when the sound problem had already been resolved for months,” and calls for “a lot more transparency and accountability in this type of decision-making”. 

How things need to change

It is clear that change is needed in this area. Sharpe suggests we look to other countries both in terms of “using nightlife as a valuable add-on to our economy and widening the cultural offering at night”. Certainly the lack of vision among the authorities and their “lack of recognition for modern music culture” is a factor, which in turn affects the industry in a more concrete way through legislation. As previously mentioned, the system that is currently in place is outdated. It is a system in which venues have to apply for monthly Special Exemption Orders (SEOs), the price of which make it very difficult for venues to survive: “We can’t have a healthy nightlife scene with these charges still in place, venues can’t afford them.” A venue in Ireland that opens 6 nights a week would have to spend around €128,000 per year on SEOs, excluding the legal fees they would pay for each monthly court application. 

“Many people feel creativity is being systematically suppressed through the closure of venues which cultivate it by giving musicians and artists a platform.”

Sharpe suggests that “not one but two licences” are necessary for nightlife to grow. “Standard late licensing for pubs and clubs needs more flexibility with closing times and a reduction in costs.” On a short term basis, Sharpe says this could involve “modifying the old theatre licence for venues that offer a certain standard of music and entertainment later into the night”. This would be a viable option for late night bars or nightclubs, adding that they used this type of licence before it was removed in 2008. 

He also suggests the introduction of a “multi-use licence” that would “accommodate an even wider range of cultural activities”. This would also eliminate the alcohol argument which is frequently brought into the discussion: “In this case, especially as the focus would be less on alcohol, the venue could operate as close to 24 hour as necessary.” 

In addition, he suggests “a new zoning plan for nightlife in the city…and better city planning in general”. Making use of existing spaces for nightlife would be crucial to this plan: “New areas and spaces need to be identified for nightlife. Maybe they would be on the outskirts of the city even, and far away from residential properties.” Sharpe also references the Culture Night programme which utilised buildings within the city centre for night time events, an approach which could help develop the nightlife industry in the future. 

Getting involved

In terms of how to help, Sharpe urges people to “make contact with local representatives, political parties and all related government departments (Justice & Equality particularly)”. You can get involved in the campaign by checking out the How To Help section on their website, or spreading awareness by wearing a Give Us The Night t-shirt. Lastly, Sharpe thanks those who have already contributed: “Thanks to everyone who is actively supporting the campaign. We have been making huge progress and that is going to continue until we achieve our aims.”