IT’S an interesting time to be a publican in Ireland. Depending on the location, you’re either full of optimism for the future or feeling despair about the sheer number of obstacles stacked against the humble pub.
Optimistic publicans are to be found in areas like the Wild Atlantic Way, where they know that even if winter is long and dark, the tourist season is on the horizon. A good summer can make or break any hospitality outlet, none more so than the pub. Tourists love our pubs, in poll after poll they cite the pub as one of the main reasons they visit Ireland. Whether it’s the craic and conversation, meeting the locals or hearing a tall story or two, visitors flock to Irish pubs. They are one of Ireland’s best and unique selling points.
You would think that receiving such a massive vote of confidence from overseas would give our politicians pause for thought. Surely, we need to preserve and protect such a vital asset?
Unfortunately, that is not the case. We live in a country where officialdom takes a short- sighted approach to our pubs. The recent introduction of changes to the drink-driving legislation is a case in point.
Introducing legislation to save lives is laudable and no sane person would object. Publicans are family people first and foremost, so they wouldn’t complain about laws that will protect their children. The problem is the wrong people are being targeted.
The sheer volume of checkpoints between 7am-11am is staggering. The checkpoints coupled with most people’s inability to work out when they drive safely the ‘morning after’ means that fear has taken hold in many parts of the country.
A sensible approach is called for. Up until last October, anyone caught between 50mg-80mg could receive three penalty points for a first offence. This has now changed to an automatic three-month driving ban and while some may say that’s appropriate punishment, there was no thought given to the disproportionate impact the new law would have in rural areas.
Put simply, the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act, as the new law is called, is barely mentioned in Dublin. The reason is obvious — access to public transport. The capital has the DART, Luas, bus service and dozens of taxi firms. In rural areas, public transport infrastructure is woefully inadequate.
The bus service is limited, taxi are almost non-existent and enterprising publicans who wish to ferry customers to and from the pub are hit with massive insurance costs and a complicated application process for a rural hackney licence.
None of this was considered when the drink-driving laws were changed. The past six months has seen the most dramatic changes to rural Ireland in decades. There is a lot of anger out there, something city dwellers don’t understand given their access to proper transport facilities.
We need our politicians to act by introducing measures that help rather than hinder communities. Adequate night-times bus services, easier access to hackney licences and reduced morning checkpoints are just some of the issues we need action on right now.
People in rural areas understand the pub plays a vital role in the local community. Besides providing employment, sponsoring teams, supporting local businesses and suppliers, the pub brings people together in a way that provides invaluable social cohesion. Loneliness is a killer and the pub is one of the best antidotes there is. That’s why despite all the pessimism about the rural pub, I’m optimistic they will remain relevant.
There are a couple of reasons for this optimism. Firstly, as the country is approaching full employment consumers are feeling better about spending a few euro. As a nation, we like to eat out, a trend pubs have taken full advantage of as their combination of improved quality and competitive pricing is a winner for price conscious consumers.
The Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework reveals that our population will grow by one million over the next 20 years. Organisations like the VFI must represent their members in rural areas to ensure some of the benefits of that boom extend beyond cities and towns.
It’s not just population growth that is giving rise to optimism. Our tourism numbers are at record levels. In 2016, according to the CSO, foreign tourism expenditure was worth over €6bn. Domestic tourism generated over €1.7bn, giving a tourism total of €7.84bn. This compares with €7.255bn in 2015, an increase of 8.1%.
Over 9.6 million people visited Ireland in 2016 and those numbers are set to climb over the coming years. All these tourists need to eat and drink and that’s where the modern, innovative publican comes in.
You see changes all around the country with younger publicans creating new markets. We have pubs now that do more business during the day than at night and that’s before I mention pubs that open for breakfast. While some bemoan the end of one era, we need to celebrate the opportunities a new era will bring.