Belfast’s nightlife suffers at the hands of stringent new laws
This week Belfast won an award for the quality of it’s nightlife. That’s according to the Association of Town Centre Management, who say that the city is ’safe and welcoming’. However, to the contrary, local government recently enforced new laws on clubs and bars, meaning that they must all close at 2am at the very latest – which in turn has caused many problems in the city centre. As bars and clubs can serve alcohol until 1am, yet close at 2am, Belfast’s city centre becomes chaos after closing time with thousands forced out into the streets to battle one another for taxis home, due to having nowhere else to go. Timmy Stewart, a local DJ and club promoter, filled me in on the story so far…
How long have you been involved in the Belfast night scene?
From guest slots at Shake Ya Brain and Choice at the Art College to hosting my own parties and presently holding key residencies in the city, producing music and running labels, I’ve been involved in the Belfast electronic music scene for the best part of twenty years.
What parties have you put on and where?
Digital Boogie, Tsunami, Islandhopper, Unit and more recently Extended Play joint ventures with the Twitch crew, they’ve taken place across a range of different locations in the city from makeshift venues, to proper nightclubs and even a boat.
Up to now, how has the situation been? Pretty free I guess?
Well truth be told, it’s never really been that great here regarding drinking up and closing times. The Art College used to finish at 1am against the back drop of the Troubles. It was really one of the only decent spots to go to (apart from Different Drum at the Limelight), which meant it was often sold out by 9pm with an electric atmosphere from start to finish. Things gradually got better on that front after the 1997 ceasefire with the introduction of 3am and 6am entertainment licenses although there have been some major setbacks of late.
When did it all start to change?
Just after Easter this year certain politicians enforced earlier closing times on nightclubs, meaning they now have to close at 2am instead of 3am. To most, one hour may not seem like a big change but when you consider bars can also serve until 1am, the incentive to get people into clubs becomes a lot more difficult.
Was there a particular incident that kicked it off?
A televised documentary focusing on the tragic death of a young man who drowned in an alcohol related accident highlighted some issues. It must be like hell on earth what that family are going through. The thing is that stupidly priced drinks promotions coupled with a short window to consume them is more than likely the major problem here. I honestly believe making clubs close earlier at the weekend is actually closing that window yet again and encourages binge drinking rather than preventing it.
How did you feel when things started to change?
It’s been kind of depressing to see clubs that had been surviving through a pretty grim economic downturn see their attendance figures take a major slump almost overnight with no real control over the situation. Everyone definitely felt a bit powerless against what was happening I guess.
Why do you think these changes have been implemented and who do you think is responsible?
I’m not entirely sure what the answer is as to why as it doesn’t really make sense in my head. It’s like closing ranks on certain sections of a night time economy in the middle of an already bleak period. The responsibility lies with the politicians enforcing the new changes and although there has been some research and consultation carried out regarding the minimum unit pricing of alcohol, nothing has been implemented yet.
Central and local government should be trying to tackle the issues surrounding irresponsible drink promotions and binge drinking and I don’t feel they are really meeting that problem head-on at present.
What effect has it had on the night scene in Belfast? How have you been affected, what about clubbers and the clubs/bars themselves?
It’s definitely a lot more difficult to encourage people into the city centre at night now or to leave the bars and venture to night clubs at present. There isn’t a great deal of time left to spend in a night club compared to a bar at the minute so it’s hard to justify some entrance fees at present, with the lesser opening hours it also becomes risky putting on any international guests.
It’s also a total nightmare getting home as everyone leaves the city centre at the same time and it’s often a bit of a free-for-all at the taxi ranks. It’s taken me a couple of hours to get a taxi for what is a 20 minute journey home which is total madness and I’m lucky as I can remain safely inside a venue after a gig and not have to hang around on the streets. However anecdotal evidence tells of people waiting two or three hours for a taxi home. You also often see people (including young girls on their own) walking home through areas of high risk.
Belfast was recently handed an award for its night life… what’s your response to that?
I just don’t get that to be honest. You can visibly see people getting distressed over the long waits, often quarreling and physically fighting. Plus, taxi drivers are constantly telling us how under pressure they are during the hours of 2am to 4am, so it’s strange that it’s deemed to be safer now than before the staggered closing times.
What would you say to the powers-that-be who are enforcing these new opening laws etc…?
Stop unnecessarily damaging a section of our night time economy at a time when people don’t really need extra incentives to stay at home and reduce their spending. You are helping fuel a massive brain drain of young people who experience a better, more vibrant overall living experience in other UK cities whilst at university. Stop pushing this part of the night time economy into reverse at a time when the electronic scene here is thriving and at its most creative.
Do you think things will change?
I hope the government will come to their senses soon. Especially at a time when we don’t have a strong export market, we are a small country and tourism is one major selling point. This is recognised but we need a night time economy for young people as well as the day trip market. It’s pretty narrow minded to think a Titanic Centre is going to be the main focus of our tourism campaign when the city at night and into the early hours of the morning is in total chaos for a few hours and then like a complete ghost town for the period just after.
What are the alternatives, have you tried to contact the people in charge to maybe negotiate?
Various lobby groups and petitions have been set up, approaches made to the relevant central government departments and local councils, politicians contacted and discussions are being held between license holders and the police etc…
What does the future hold, in your eyes?
Northern Ireland has a superb electronic scene right now, a proper movement which is really being recognised globally. It’s only going to get stronger but it would be a sad day if local artists played gigs everywhere else except for their own city.Tagged in: Belfast, nightlife, Timmy Stewart
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter