News & Insights: Commercial

Change to Licensing Laws for ‘Special Events’

10 May 2019

The Department for Communities has recently launched a consultation document to garner public and industry opinion on a proposal to change our licensing laws in respect of ‘special events’. This public consultation has come about at this time due to the upcoming Open Golf Championship at Portrush this July and the effect of a change in the law would allow extended hours as well as the sale of alcohol for consumption off the premises, for example, commemorative bottles of whiskey. The fact that this consultation has only come about due to the Open coming to Northern Ireland has rankled some within the pub and hospitality sector who have been campaigning for changes for many years without success. The restrictions imposed by our current legislation may have come as a surprise to the organisers of the Open and highlight the constraints within which local operators must work in order to host other events.

Without any change to the current laws, the Open will have to operate their sale of alcohol via an occasional licence under article 30 of the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. An occasional licence allows the holder of a pub, hotel or restaurant licence to transport their licence temporarily to another venue or place for use there. It can only be used in association with a legitimate occasional event specified in the legislation as a “function of an occasional nature which [is] organised by any body established for social, charitable or benevolent purposes or for furthering the common interests of persons associated with any trade, profession, educational or cultural activity, game or sport.” It is likely that the Open for example, would meet this criteria as being an event connected with a sporting body. However, this prevents occasional licences being used for purely commercial reasons or for the likes of weddings and the courts and police are starting to take more interest in such applications to prevent occasional licences from being abused in this way. Some outdoor concerts, including major headline concerts, have recently come under the microscope from the authorities as to whether they meet the criteria, which is causing worry for the organisers of such events. One could potentially argue that concerts are a grey area in terms of the current law but at the present time are not specifically catered for so there is no other way of selling alcohol at a concert other than with an occasional licence.

Occasional licences are also restrictive in terms of the hours they can operate; between 11.30am and 1am on Monday to Saturday and from 12.30pm to 12midnight on Sundays. For the Open, this will mean they have to curtail their usual hospitality offering to within those hours. Visitors will also be prevented from buying alcohol to bring home with them as occasional licences do not permit off-sales and this means the Open will be prevented from having their usual scotch whiskey sales points. This restriction has also been highlighted by the events such as food and drink fairs such as the Belfast Christmas Markets where people can drink at the event but vendors are prevented from selling bottles of local produce for consumption off the premises.

It remains to be seen whether the Department’s consultation will lead to any changes to the law before July of this year and how the industry will react if changes do come about. While any change is likely to be welcomed to a certain extent, there would no doubt also be an element of frustration by our local operators that this particular change won’t benefit them and will be reserved for large scale international events which are going to be few and far between.

O’Reilly Stewart advise on all areas of licensing and hospitality law. Please contact Christopher Bullock if you have any queries on 90 321 000 or by email at

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