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Talking up the Trade

January 19th, 2015 | by LCN Editor
Talking up the Trade

Colin Neill feels that, economically at least, 2014 was ultimately a little disappointing, but he cautions that preoccupation with the negative aspects of the trade can only lead to further difficulties in the future…

Speaking to LCN for his customary update in the days before Christmas, Pubs of Ulster chief, Colin Neill admitted that things had been “tough enough” for licensees across Northern Ireland in 2014:

“It’s been challenging,” he conceded.  “There have been some small signs of improvement, particularly in Belfast, but the situation with government cutbacks and the job losses that flow from that have just put the fear back into the trade.”

The trade had gone into 2014 with high hopes of a final end to the economic downturn that has so stymied their business, but by year end there seemed little evidence that those aspirations had been met:

“It’s a tiny bit better than last year,” said Colin. “Hotels have seen a steady improvement but the pubs are the ones that are most challenged.”

The Pubs of Ulster chief is now worried that if things don’t improve soon for members, the trade may begin “to fall back into the mindset of recession”:

“It’s important to be reminded about the positive because these things can all become self-fulfilling,” he warned. “If we are the purveyors of doom, if we spend our time complaining that no-one comes to the pub or to the restaurant anymore, then that’s what happens, people no longer have a reason to go there.”

Pubs of Ulster now represents around 70 per cent of the province’s pubs, more than half of its hotels and a growing number of licensed restaurants and visitor attractions such as the Grand Opera House and Titanic Belfast.

“What we need to do now is get out and talk up the trade and give people a reason to go out again,” said Colin. “People still need to go out, they just have less money to do it and they are looking for a better experience every time. If you just want alcohol, then you go to the supermarket, but if you want to socialise, to have a nice meal, to watch sport with other people, then the pub can still offer you more than a can and a packet of crisps.”

In terms of issues, it seems likely that the enduring issue of a minimum unit price for alcohol in Northern Ireland may finally be settled in 2015. A case needs to be established on grounds of health before any legislation can be enacted and former health minister, Edwin Poots has already undertaken research into the issue on an all-Ireland basis.

Progress has been stalled, however, by events across the Irish Sea where the Scottish Whisky Association has gone to Europe in a bid to get new minimum pricing legislation there overturned. Nothing will happen here until the results of those proceedings is known, although Colin thinks that might happen as early as July:

“This move won’t benefit us directly, there’s such a price differential between the on and off-trades that it won’t price people back into the pubs, but we might gain in terms of less taxation and less of the regulation that has traditionally been used to tackle the misuse of alcohol,” he told LCN. Also, it should stop people blaming [publicans] for kids being drunk on the streets.”

Pubs of Ulster will meet with Health Minister, Jim Wells, this month to discuss his new Food Hygiene Rating Bill, which will make it compulsory for businesses to display their hygiene star ratings. The trade body will tell the Minister that it doesn’t believe that participation in the scheme should be compulsory:

“If we are going to have this scheme then let’s work with the government to make it more effective,” said Colin. “We have members with a five-star rating who only sell crisps.”

He went on to say that going into 2015, priorities for Pubs of Ulster would continue to be to support members in their businesses and to continue to lobby for reductions in costly legislation. A strategic review will also be undertaken to ensure that all the agencies efforts and resources are targeted towards strengthening its hand in its lobbying activities:

“We hope next year to see economic growth spread across the province to all our members and that they will see a financial upturn,” added Colin Neill. “We also hope that the progress we have made in government will continue so that we can see the hospitality sector recognised as one of our key economic assets and the key driver for growth in the economy.”


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