Nightclubs, pubs, bars and other late-night businesses were rightly among the first places to be closed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is no doubt that they have suffered financially from a particularly extended period of lockdown. Yet, with Irish nightlife now gradually reopening, it is important to recognise that the greatest threat faced by the industry is not public health measures, but outdated and overly moralistic government regulations that both make operating late-night venues far too costly and dissuade patrons.
It is no secret the Irish nightlife industry has been struggling for years. Long before the arrival of the word ‘Covid’ into Irish discourse, the closure of beloved locations such as Richmond Street’s The Bernard Shaw, Andrew Lane’s Hangar, the Liberties’ Tivoli Theatre or Cork’s Boardwalk Bar had already greatly harmed the country’s nightlife, deeply frustrating thousands. Worse still, many of these once-lively cultural spots have since been replaced with lifeless hotels or office blocks that add nothing to the area’s cultural life. While the closure of such beloved venues is often accompanied by huge public outcry, this pattern of corporate gentrification of cultural areas will continue unperturbed without a revamped approach to how the Irish night-time industry is regulated.
What exactly is wrong with the government’s current approach to nightlife in Ireland? While a multitude of bad policies (from restrictions on opening hours to lack of night-time transport provision) have contributed to the present sorry state of Irish nightlife, the most damaging is perhaps that venues wishing to operate as nightclubs or late-night bars must first acquire a licence known as a Special Exemption Order (SEO) which costs €410 per late-night opening. This is clearly a huge cost for any venue intending to open late more than a handful of times a month and since its increase in 2008 from €220 to the current price, the number of SEOs granted in Ireland has more than halved. While it is true that this system brings in large amounts of income for the state (with €2.2m in revenue expected from it prior to the reopening of nightclubs alone), it has played a central role in crippling our night-time economy and greatly limits both the opening of new venues and the success of smaller ones – thereby favouring larger, established businesses. How can anyone seriously be expected to set up a new late-night venue in Ireland when the cost of simply being open could be as much as €128,000 a year?
“The government’s attitude toward nightclubs and bars is clearly characterised by distrust.”
Given the exorbitant cost of these SEOs, one might expect them at the very least to allow venues some control over their opening hours so as to maximise nightly revenue and take in large numbers of patrons. Yet instead of this, all late-night venues are required to stop serving customers by 02:30 – one of the earliest mandated closing times in Europe. The government’s attitude toward nightclubs and bars is clearly characterised by distrust — itself likely grounded in distrust of the mostly young people attending them. Instead of seeing these venues as vital cultural institutions that not only employ people but also regularly provide entertainment and leisure to thousands, the government (spurred on by some residents’ groups) has traditionally regarded them in a far more negative light as sources of nuisance and anti-social behaviour. Ironically, by mandating a single closing time, these moralistic regulations achieve what they set out to prevent, as such ‘anti-social’ behaviour and loud noise will naturally be worse if multitudes of (oftentimes drunk) patrons are forced outside onto the same streets at the exact same time.
“The approach of the government and other figures of authority towards Ireland’s nightlife has always been tainted by this essentially conservative, moralistic distrust of younger people and any other group deemed different.”
Indeed, the approach of the government and other figures of authority towards Ireland’s nightlife has always been tainted by this essentially conservative, moralistic distrust of younger people and any other group deemed different. Strict licensing laws on night-time venues in Ireland have their origins in the Public Dance Hall Act of 1935, which consistently ruled more harshly against “alternative” forms of entertainment such as jazz or even set dancing, while favouring traditional dances. This moralism can still be seen today in the exclamations of anger at the ‘anti-social’ behaviour that surrounds night-time venues and yet always ignores the role of government policy in exacerbating it. One need only look to concerns over noise and misbehaviour that preceded the closing of the Bernard Shaw or to the hysteria surrounding young people drinking outside during the summer for proof of this.
“We also have much to learn from how late-night venues are treated abroad, where in cities such as Berlin they have been explicitly designated as cultural institutions.”
How then can an enjoyable and sustainable night-time economy be salvaged in Ireland? While damaging government policies such as those outlined above have certainly done serious harm, it is not too late to change course. For solutions one need only look to the manifesto of the campaign group Give Us The Night, who suggest an operating period of between 18:00 to 06:00 with gradual closing times to limit noise and the potential for misbehaviour, the scrapping of the SEO system and devolution of licencing decisions to local authorities, the introduction of a ‘night mayor’ with responsibility for the night-time economy and the requiring of developers to consider the presence of late-night venues when building. These simple recommendations would go a long way towards improving the standard of Irish nightlife and reducing costs both for venues and local communities. We also have much to learn from how late-night venues are treated abroad, where, in cities such as Berlin, they have been explicitly designated as cultural institutions and host various events during the daytime such as art and music classes or theatre productions.
Given their specifically social purpose, there is no doubt that their closure for much of the pandemic has seriously hurt Irish nightclubs and bars. However, many of these venues were struggling long before the pandemic because of poor (and at times actively hostile) government policies. There is admittedly some room for hope with the recent publication of the government’s night-time economy task force’s report suggesting real progress on issues such as the extension of opening hours and appointment of night mayors. Yet the momentum generated by groups such as Give Us The Night must be maintained until significant changes are followed through on. The future of Ireland’s nightlife depends on it.