When it comes to a dispute between Nelson McCausland and a group of pub owners I am, given that I have no particular love for either side, tempted to remain neutral. However, on the subject of the Easter opening hours for local bars, the publicans are correct to describe our laws as "archaic." Interestingly, this appears to be developing into an annual spat between the Minister for Social Development and the province's pub owners as last year the exact the same word featured in the headlines when this story was being covered.
Even by Northern Irish standards the laws do seem dated and the argument in their defence has always seemed to me to be a weak one. If the laws prevented bars from opening at any point (as they do on Good Friday in the Republic) I might still oppose them but I could at least understand the Christian claim that this somehow gives us a chance to think about the meaning of Easter, regardless of whether the majority of us want to or not. Quite how allowing a pub to open at 5pm and then forcing it to shut it at 11pm in some way honours the sacrifice made by Jesus of Nazareth leaves me stumped.
I was pleased to see the Green Party raise their voice on this matter and declare their support for a "modern, vibrant night-time economy which reflects our status as European tourist destination." For this to be achieved though would require much more than merely normalising the opening hours at Easter time. One can only feel pity for a resident of, say, Barcelona or Berlin who decides to come to Belfast for a weekend city break at any point in the year; the trains grind to a halt around 11pm, the buses do the same at a similar time and just after one o’clock large burly men will order you to finish your drinks and get out of whatever establishment you've just spent your hard-earned cash in. But that is a debate for another day.
Last year when the Easter opening hours debate was taking place Colin Neill from Pubs of Ulster remarked that "religious views should be included in the conversation." I disagree. By all means have a conversation, and if the people involved in that conversation harbour strong views on religious matters then so be it, but their personal faith must remain a private matter and should not be allowed to shape or influence any discussion. If a Christian citizen of this fair land wants to pass on the option of having a pint on Good Friday or Easter Sunday in order to mull over the death and resurrection of Christ then they have every right to do so. What they should have no right to do, however, is attempt to force other members of the community to do the same.
This is not a left-right matter; "archaic" laws of this type can be opposed from a conservative or right libertarian point of view just as much as they can be opposed from a liberal or left-wing perspective. Rather it is a dispute between people those that want to live in a modern secular society and those that wish to cling onto the old illusion that they still live in a 'Christian country'. In all disputes of this type it is former that wins through in the end. On this small and relatively insignificant issue, the momentum is on the side of modernity.