Regulate not our sins

An older Conservative member told me a chilling tale recently. During the late 1960s he and a friend, both men of moderate opinions and supportive of the then Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, went along to the Ulster Hall to hear Ian Paisley speak. They knew what they were letting themselves in for and they weren’t disappointed. What they saw was the big man whip an audience of “people who weren’t quite right” into a complete frenzy. The Catholic Church got it with both barrels and at one stage missiles that had been thrown at a rally the previous week were dropped from the podium as evidence of the lawlessness that had supposedly thrived under the O’Neill government. The language was practically medieval in nature as Paisley espoused his notorious views in his typical style.

At this stage the Paisleyites were still a fringe grouping but not content with forming his own church in the 1960s Paisley founded his own political party in 1971.  Its fundamentalist nature stems from its close association with Free Presbyterianism and, over 40 years later, as the biggest Unionist party its social views hold sway in Northern Ireland.

But how does this affect our day-to-day lives? Let me give you a recent example. While we had the CfL team over last weekend we attempted to take a shortcut through the Victoria Square shopping centre. Unfortunately at 1255 this couldn’t be done. While on the surface this appears nothing more than a minor inconvenience, anyone who has ever seen scores of tourists milling around Belfast City Centre on a Sunday morning wondering why the hell nothing is open would tell you a different story. Our Sunday opening hours, which determine that ‘large shops’ can’t open until 1pm lest they be subject to a £50,000 fine, are the legislative embodiment of the wishes of our fundamentalist overlords to inflict their values upon the rest of us.

A 2012 study suggested that restrictive Sunday trading holds back our economy to the value of £3million a week and the DUP’s immediate knee-jerk reaction to the news that George Osborne’s budget was to further deregulate Sunday trading was to immediately deny that the same would be happening in Northern Ireland.  From the people who used to lock up swings on a Sunday this shouldn’t really come as a surprise – they just don’t feel comfortable with people being able to shop while church is happening, despite the fact they could stay at home and do it online if they wanted – at no great benefit to the local economy.

Much of the legislation we are subject to that restricts our personal liberty and therefore economic growth are borne of a similar vein. It makes no moral or economic sense to deny people the choice of church or shopping but that’s what we’re stuck with.

Another strong example is to be found in the approach taken to gambling. Rank Group has been beating down the door of Belfast City Council and the Executive for a number of years now to try and build a casino here. Such a development would give Belfast another string in its tourism bow and create 400 jobs in a constituency with the 47th highest unemployment rate in the UK (Belfast East). But still the answer is no – we must deny people jobs and a regulated environment to gamble in because our guardians tell us it’s not good for our spiritual health. Again though, I can go and do it online in a far less controlled environment if I want. Possibly on a Sunday morning as well. And again, with no benefit to the local economy.

Then there’s the matter of the ‘devil drink’. Nothing quite sums up the social complexities of Northern Ireland than our relationship with alcohol. Despite, not unfairly, being known as a nation of drinkers, and serious drinkers at that, our licensing laws are an inefficiently designed big-state solution designed to keep a lid on our penchant for alcohol. In no other part of the United Kingdom is alcohol required to be shut away in a different area of the shop or supermarket and in no other part are licensed premises required to shut on religious holidays. In no other part do you have to wait for a business to fail (and therefore surrender its licence) in order to open a new licensed premises. The latest you can stay out in Belfast is 3am. You can’t even drink on a train. Yet despite all this, many are still puzzled as to why we have such a brazen, practically fearless, attitude to drinking and what is somewhat affectionately known as a ‘blue-bag culture’ to match. It’s almost as if excessive state interference achieves the opposite of what it intended to do – just fancy that!

While our rate of drink-related deaths compares favourably to England’s this is because we have an unusually large number of teetotalers to balance us out. Alcohol here is a polarising substance and those teetotalers that run us, by forcing us into fewer venues, limiting competition for cheaper nights out and marginalising responsible drinkers have created a ticking health time bomb. Buckfast is far worse for you than beer. But when a bar can charge £4 for a pint because there’s limited scope for anyone to compete, for a lot of younger people, Buckfast in the park will do.

I’m not totally opposed to all of the values these people hold but all I want is for public policy to be guided by some sense of rationality. I can decide not to shop before 1pm on a Sunday, drink on Good Friday or gamble in a large casino but I resent that the choice I am entitled to as a human being is denied me and my fellow citizens, because some people can’t separate Sunday sermons and public policy in their minds.