(Mayo): I have no problem with the three matters addressed by the Bill although I am at a loss to know where the demand arose for the once off, all night opening of licensed premises on new year's eve as a way of celebrating the millennium. No publican to whom I have spoken relishes the prospect of keeping their premises open all night. However, given that it is a once off occasion, Fine Gael will not oppose the measure.
The abolition of Sunday afternoon closing has been anticipated for a considerable period of time. While Irish people have accepted Sunday closing as part of what we are, it must appear strange to overseas visitors. Until a few years ago there was a holy hour in Dublin and Cork on week days until it was abolished by the then Minister for Justice, Mr. Gerry Collins. I welcome the abolition of Sunday afternoon closing. Apart from being an outdated concept and principle, a substantial number of pubs are involved in the catering business and offer extremely good value for money. Their Sunday business, however, is considerably disrupted and constrained by the obligation to close for two hours in the afternoon. The removal of the prohibition on special exemptions after midnight on Saturday is welcome. It is legislating for the reality of what is taking place in discos every Saturday night.
However, I object to the piecemeal approach of the Minister. I vividly recall the debate on the Licensed Premises (Opening Hours) Bill, 1998, introduced in March 1998 by the late Deputy Upton. True to form, the Minister refused to accept the Bill. Apart from making the case that a select committee of the House was engaged in a review of the licensing laws and had not reported, the Minister's main problem was that the legislation was not comprehensive enough. In his contribution he stated: "I can give an undertaking that any recommendation made by the select committee arising from its review of the licensing laws will be given the most serious consideration by me with a view to amending the legislation .".
The select committee, under the chairmanship of Deputy Flanagan, consulted widely, received numerous oral and written submissions and produced an excellent report containing 72 recommendations. Instead of fulfilling his pledge of giving "the most serious consideration" to the recommendations of the select committee, the Minister has taken only two on board. He has shirked his responsibility and has failed to deliver on the comprehensive reorganisation of our liquor licensing laws about which he was so concerned a mere 15 months ago.
Many groups will be dissatisfied with the Minister's abdication of responsibility. In particular, he has left the publicans in a disgruntled mood. They cannot understand the reason the unanimous recommendation of the all-party select committee to extend the licensed opening hours to 12.30 a.m. all year round has not been adopted by the Minister. In his contribution to the debate on the late Deputy Upton's Bill, the Minister spoke about the need for "balancing of sometimes competing interests". By not extending the opening hours, he is perpetuating a situation where parents and grandparents have to leave the social atmosphere of the public house at 11.30 p.m. only to arrive home to meet their children and grandchildren departing for the club or disco where they have ready access to alcohol into the early hours of the morning.
It is ludicrous that tonight in this city visitors from continental Europe, who have paid handsomely to holiday here and are enjoying the unique atmosphere of the Irish pub, will be told at 11.30 p.m. to finish their drinks. Apart from the tourism aspect, our early closing laws reflect our lack of maturity as a nation. We should be capable of applying our own standards and per sonal strictures without expecting the State, its laws and the Garda Síochána to be our personal moral policemen.
Deputy Flanagan and I have published a Private Members' Bill which proposes to extend opening times for licensed premises. The Bill extends the opening hours by one hour in summer and one hour and 30 minutes in winter, thereby giving a year round closing time of 12.30 a.m. It abolishes the 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. closing time on Sundays. St. Patrick's Day, which at present is treated like a Sunday, will instead have normal opening hours. Christmas Day and Good Friday closing will remain and publicans will have to clear their premises by 12 midnight on Christmas eve and holy Thursday, thereby avoiding trespassing on either Christmas Day or Good Friday.
Given that it is not possible to move the Bill this week during Private Members' Business, Deputy Flanagan and I have tabled the substance of the Bill as an amendment to the Minister's Bill. I ask the Minister, in a gesture towards the balance he referred to when contributing to the debate on the late Deputy Upton's Bill, to accept this amendment. In doing so, he will recognise the unique position of the pub in Irish society. It is ironic that the Irish pub, which is being replicated throughout the world, is enormously popular and is a huge commercial success, can have unrestricted opening hours in most countries in which it is established. Yet in pubs on our native soil which cater for the native population it is shutters down and lights out every night before midnight.
I am extremely disappointed the Minister failed to bring forward the comprehensive legislative measure he spoke about 15 months ago and which is so long overdue. To appreciate the need for consolidating legislation, one need only look at the range of Acts in which the current practice and code are grounded. They range from the initial Act of 1833 through the Acts of 1835, 1836, 1845, 1854, 1855, 1860, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1872, 1874 and 1877 to the Intoxicating Liquor Licensing Acts of the 20th century in 1902, 1909, 1910, 1924, 1927, 1943, 1946, 1953, 1960, 1962, 1981 and 1988. Is it any wonder there always has been and continues to be confusion about the body of law governing the liquor trade?
Many of the Acts built on preceding Acts by reinforcing or strengthening them in some manner. Section 13 of the Licensing Act, 1872, for example, introduces a penalty for the publican who permits drunkenness or violent, quarrelsome or riotous conduct to take place in his premises or who sells intoxicating liquor to a drunken person. Section 14 of the 1872 Act introduces a £20 fine for any licensed person who knowingly permits his premises to be the habitual resort of or place of meeting of reputed prostitutes, whether the object of the resorting or meeting is for the sake of prostitution. The publican shall, if he allows them to remain there or remain longer than is necessary for the purpose of obtaining reasonable refreshment, be liable to a penalty not exceeding £20 for the first offence and £40 for the second and subsequent offences.
These penalties are doubled in the Intoxicating Liquor (General) Act, 1924. Section 10 of the Prevention of Crimes Act, 1871, provides that every person who occupies or keeps any lodging house, beer house, public house or other place where intoxicating liquors are sold or any place of public entertainment or public resort and who knowingly permits them to meet or assemble there or knowingly allows them to deposit goods therein, having reasonable cause for believing those goods to be stolen, can be guilty of an offence and shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding £10. Section 31 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1988, deals with the sale of intoxicating liquor to those under 18 years of age. Section 34 of the same Act prohibits children, unaccompanied by parents or guardian, to be on a licensed premises.
The Minister has not availed of the opportunity to untangle the mass of legislation governing the various outlets serving liquor, ranging from the traditional public house to restaurants, hotels, clubs, discos and off licences. This was the opportunity to introduce a comprehensive, intelligible and workable Bill to meet the reality of modern Ireland as it faces the new millennium. One of the most disturbing features of modern Ireland is the growing epidemic of under-age drinking. This country is afflicted by an orgy of child alcohol problems. When first year students of 12 and 13 years of age arrive at post primary schools on a Monday morning smelling of stale alcohol fumes and visibly hung over, it is time to reappraise the situation.
Unfortunately, that is the position in virtually every post primary school in the country and the age threshold continues to fall. There is almost total disregard for the law on under-age drinking and we need to come to grips with what is a major cancer among the young. There is also the other side of the coin, which is parental responsibility. The performance of parents in this regard is scandalously negligent. There is no point in expecting the State to be the moral parental guardian – acting in loco parentis – if parents have not sufficient interest to insist on their offspring being in at a reasonable time. I am not talking about midnight or 12.30 a.m. If parents do not collect their children, do not know their means of transport home, do not check their condition and do not know what time they arrive home, then parents are guilty of criminal negligence. If children know there are no boundaries, no limitations, no parental checks and no parental interest, who can blame them if they decide to indulge themselves? The streets of urban and rural Ireland in the early hours every Sunday morning are littered with bottles, beer cans, bodies, vomit, urine and blood. These young people are the mirror of a so-called modern Ireland of the new millennium.
Parents are not being fair to their children by not establishing and insisting upon limits. I do not know where we went wrong. What has happened to the basic requirement of parental maturity, example and responsibility? Up to 15 years ago I was a teacher and at that time it was the norm for teachers to attend secondary, vocational, comprehensive and community school graduation balls. Nowadays, teachers are not generally invited to such events, but if they were, many would decline to attend because of the embarrassing performances which inevitably take place and which have become part and parcel of the alcohol saturated graduation ball scene at this time of year.
The present splurge of teenage drunkenness is serious and is wreaking havoc on society. The rack and ruin has yet to be seen in many cases. The combination of under-age drinking, late drinking and take-away shops to which people go when they are disgorged from discos and dance halls at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning, means that many streets, even in rural Ireland, have become no-go areas. Many senior citizens are no longer able to enjoy peace in the tranquillity of their own homes. We have a major public order problem which is being fuelled to a large extent by uncontrolled under-age drinking.
The law has a primary role and it should be enforced. Education also has a role, but the primary role and responsibility rests with parents. Unfortunately, far too few of them appreciate or accept this responsibility.
I welcome the fact that the Government has decided to think again. However, instead of making a decision to defer consideration of the Bill on Committee and Report Stages, the Government should accept the amendment tabled by Deputy Flanagan and me. Then we would have the balanced Bill which the Minister aspired to 15 months ago when he spoke on the late Deputy Upton's Bill. It would be a Bill that would bring some semblance of equilibrium between the competing interests he was so concerned about on that occasion.