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Thursday, 26 July, 2001, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Island of liberal drinking

By BBC News Online's Finlo Rohrer

The Isle of Man has long been famous as an island where outdated laws flourished long after they were abolished in Britain.

Birching, capital punishment and anti-homosexuality laws were eventually consigned to the dustbin and the island has become a legal pioneer in one area.

Pint of beer
The law has benefited 'free houses' serving traditional ale
Two weeks ago the island scrapped its antiquated licensing laws and introduced 24-hour opening for pubs, bars and even off-licences.

Pub lovers have always acknowledged there are few more pleasurable drinking experiences than the covert thrill of the traditional "lock-in".

But on the island legislators have not just made the lock-in redundant, they have abolished the concept of closing time after years of experimentation with slightly extended weekend opening.

Under the new legislation all licensed premises have the automatic right to serve alcohol 24-hours a day.

Procrastination fears

Across the Irish Sea in England and Wales, licensing laws have changed little since 1915, when they were tightened to stop factory workers turning up drunk and harming the war effort.

More than 85 years later, legislation for a change on the mainland yet again failed to make the Queen's speech, fuelling fears of continued procrastination.

Previously anything to do with licensing provoked massive debate, public outrage and the end of the world as we know it

Allan Bell
Home Affairs Minister
To the dismay of Manx doom-mongers, the quiet pubs of the island are yet to give way to indulgent alcoholic excess and there are no signs of wannabe drunks arriving on package tours.

With the end of opening hours, the same legislation brought draconian new powers for the police to tackle "rowdy pubs".

A police inspector has the right to close down a pub for six hours with no notice and magistrates can extend that for another 60 hours.

'Remarkable turnabout'

Home Affairs Minister Allan Bell told BBC News Online it had very few opponents.

He said: "It has been quite a remarkable turnabout.

"Previously anything to do with licensing provoked massive debate, public outrage and the end of the world as we know it.

Manx flag
The Isle of Man is not usually known for radical legislation
"But this time there has been very little debate about it."

Mr Bell said the new regime had eased in with few teething problems: "The last two weekends were the quietest the police have known this year.

"My belief is that the problem of alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour doesn't stem from the licensing hours except where they are unnecessarily prohibitive.

No 'rowdies'

"Now, there really is no such thing as licensing hours."

Mr Bell, who sheepishly admitted he has not yet taken advantage of the new laws, said there was no likelihood of the island now attracting the English stag parties that have bedevilled the centre of Dublin.

This is the Isle of Man - we do our own thing and people follow our lead

Sue Scott
Pub landlady
The Shore is a family-owned country pub in the village of Gansey in the south of the island which is often less than full, but it is now opening as late as 3am at the weekend.

Landlady Sue Scott "declines to comment" on whether she held lock-ins before the law changed but had only praise for the legislators' farsightedness.

She said: "This is the Isle of Man. We do our own thing and people follow our lead.

Smooth transition

"I don't get a crowded house every night but if I do have people, we are able to go on without breaking the law.

"If my doors are open, I'm open."

Tynwald Hill, seat of annual parliament
Manx legislators have been happy to take radical steps on licensing
The island's constabulary are happy with the new regime. Acting Chief Inspector Dave Bell said: "It has been a very smooth transition.

"Under the old licensing laws all premises tended to kick out at the same time which caused us a lot of problems in policing the streets - there should be a more staggered approach now."

Martin Brunnschweiler, managing director of Bushy's Brewery, which also runs a handful of pubs, said his staff have quashed any notions of opening late.

But he is full of praise for the new laws, insisting: "It is a wonderful thing to have the flexibility. If there was a Mike Tyson fight at 5am we could keep the pub open."

Tourist potential

Mr Brunnschweiler is pressing for the island to market its newfound liberal regime to tourists.

He said: "I don't think the tourist board has taken it on. It's potentially wonderful."

The island suffered this summer from the cancellation of its main tourist event - the TT motorbike races - due to foot-and-mouth fears.

Campaign for Real Ale spokesman Jonathan Mail said licensees across the UK should have the same freedom.

TT race
Thirsty bikers will be even keener to visit the island
He said: "We certainly hope the British Government will take a lead from the Manx Government and realise that people are responsible adults.

"I'm sure more flexible licensing hours on the island will do its tourist industry no end of good."

Mark Hastings, of the UK's Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, said: "How interesting it is to see that a tiny speck off the coast of Britain will be into the 21st century before the mainland.

"We are considerably disappointed and dismayed that the government has failed to deliver on a promise it made a mere seven weeks before the general election."

See also:

02 May 01 | UK Politics
End near for 'antiquated' pub laws
21 Jul 98 | UK
Open all hours
25 Aug 99 | UK
Appeal to reform drink laws
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