Last month, we co-hosted Night Moves with Nialler9 in the Fruit ‘n’ Veg Market as part of Dublin Culture Night on Friday September 23rd. A part of it was a discussion on the future of clubbing in the capital and the late night economy. With the long awaited publication of a bill to help stimulate the county’s night-time economy, we reflect on some of the issues involved and look at what can be learned from the experience of the Night Time Advisor in the city of Bristol, less than a hundred miles away.
As we have observed in these pages many times over the years, if you live in Ireland then you’ve undoubtedly experienced the negative impact that our outdated licensing laws have on nightlife here. The knock-on effects have proved wide-ranging; from economic pressure on bars, to serious consequences to personal health and safety, to the infrastructural strain that is obvious anytime anyone boards a Nitelink in the city.
The subsequent work of campaigners and organisations such as Give Us The Night, helped stimulate some serious reflection and discussion about the kinds of things that the city required to radically improve matters, ultimately resulting in the publication of the Night-Time Economy Task-Force Report in September 2021. Today finally sees the publication of the much anticipated General Scheme of the Sale of Alcohol Bill*, which promises to reform and streamline our outdated licensing laws, and help support and stimulate the night-time economy.
As part of this process, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin T.D, has announced a €6m support package for the night-time economy to include nine towns and cities in the new Night-Time Advisor Pilot initiative. Dublin City forms one of the selected pilot locations along with Cork City, Limerick City, Galway City, Kilkenny, Drogheda, Sligo, Buncrana and Longford Town. The Minister also gave a commitment to progress the provision of sound-proofing grants for venues to help prepare for late opening, promising to work with members of the sector to help create a new model, that maximises the benefits for businesses and surrounding communities alike. She said that the government is currently examining different ways to approach this – the Berlin model being one potential approach under active consideration.
The facts are stark: In their pre-budget submission, Give Us the Night indicated that there’s been an 84% decrease in nightclubs since 2000, no new build venues in long over a decade, and some counties without any type of specialist night-time dance venue. One thing we wanted to bring to the ‘Night Moves’ discussion was an external perspective, and not necessarily from the likes of Berlin which, in some respects, is misaligned in terms of scale and where we are currently at. Bristol is a little over an hour away by plane and has a population just shy of 500,000. And yet, they have a vibrant club and cultural scene open until 6am with numerous progressive initiatives as outlined by Carly Heath, their night-time economy adviser who joined our discussion.
Below is an edited transcript of a wide-ranging hour long discussion on what is being done and needs to be done. We heard from an activist, politician, promoter and outsider. The full conversation can be heard at Nialler9.com
Councillor Claire Byrne – Green Party
Carly Heath – Night Time Economy Advisor, Bristol
Michael McDermott – Totally Dublin
“There should be more noise in the city”
SS: “What we (Give Us The Night) are really trying to do is sow some seeds in terms of cultural infrastructure. We don’t believe that arts centres are being used to their full capability so one of the things we have asked for is that more of these spaces, more publicly owned buildings would be used for the likes of what you are putting on here. We need to see more examples of that, but we also need to see venues that can sustain themselves financially. I think it’s very important to give venues the tools. At the moment the amount of money you have to pay to keep the wolf from the door is really tough. I think our pre-budget submission is quite realistic and that’s the feedback we got from most parties as well (Note: The Budget saw the halving of excise fees for venue owners from €110 to €55 but applicants will still have to pay a total of €210 for an SEO when the court fee is taken into account.)
I want to promote noise in the city, there should be more noise in the city, to be honest. But there’s a lot of people who don’t like noise, especially if they live next to it, but we can understand that. We need to be able to appease those groups and come up with a solution. We need to re-invest into spaces that have been used for night-life, invest in spaces that have the potential for night-life and also put in other tools such as sound proofing when it comes to noise.”
MMD: “Claire, you’re coming from the inside as a politician and also being in government. You see the machinations up close, there is an understanding that policy and legislative change is a complex beast, and it has been a year since the delivery of the Task Force Report on the Night-Time Economy. Where do you come from right now concerning the frustrations and possibilities?”
CB: “I represent the city as Green Party councillor for the last eight years and at a local level my job is to try and steer the policy in the right direction and we are also fortunate, in some sense, to be in government. My colleague Catherine Martin is Minister for Culture, so she has direct responsibility for this. We also have the transport brief which is also relevant to a vibrant night-time economy. But I’ve been a citizen of the city for much longer, long enough to remember when we had a really vibrant club culture and good night-time economy and a range of clubs that are no longer here – POD, Crawdaddy, Kitchen… they were all gig venues and late night venues. Changes are as a result of licensing changes that have taken place over the last ten years, but also a direct result of bad planning decisions at a local level with Dublin City Council, but also with An Bord Pleanála that has aided, abetted and actively facilitated the erosion of our club culture. Whereas we used to have a diverse offering – I always think of Strictly Fish on Kildare Street which had a house room, a drum and bass one and even a reggae one – that to me was Dublin in the late ‘90s and early noughties and that’s just gone now. Even from a venue perspective where those things used to happen in theatres and hotels and restaurants, that’s all stopped now because it has become unviable for those places.
“We have a big job on our hands. Things are changing but at a snails’ pace. For me personally, I have been campaigning for a Night Mayor for many years and had a motion agreed in 2019 and, to be fair, I was inspired by meeting Robbie (Kitt) and Sunil in 2018 when they outlined the situation from their perspective as promoters and musicians and DJs. Four years on, we are getting close and there are a number of reasons. I pushed really hard to bring Sunil into the decision making process. I don’t know if you are very grateful for that because you now share the frustrations I have on a daily basis but having that voice there that decision makers can hear directly is really critical.
“We made sure there were commitments in the culture sector in the programme for government to look at the night-time economy. We needed to do this before the pandemic but now it is absolutely critical, the city is on life support after six o’clock at the moment. The Night-Time Economy Task Force came up with 36 recommendations which we are in the process of implementing at the moment. We’ve recently seen funding for pilot projects and are about to announce pilot cities and towns where we will finally appoint night-time advisors and committees to really actively look at the issues that need to be addressed.”
“We have a big job on our hands. Things are changing but at a snails’ pace.”
MMD: “Renn, what are your own personal experiences of night-time culture and interventions you are trying to do?”
RM: “When we started Origins Eile in 2018, it was a black queer organisation aiming to amplify joy. We’d seen the model of BBZ London and Pussy Palace working there and my friend Ivan was like, ‘be the change you want to see’. What I found was when I ended up DJing in more regular spaces, the audience who would come would see my face on the poster and expect it to be r’n’b and hip hop. What ended up happening is a silo where I’d really want black queer techno music and there wasn’t that space being given. We did a series of DJ workshops and working with minoritized community, you are dealing with emotions and trauma which we wanted to carve out a space for it to be heard and healed.
“We went around to a number of venues and it was nearly like a closed door policy. Security is often the first point of contact and back in 2019 on one first club night we did 300 people weren’t able to come in and we were like, ‘why it is so quiet, we’re meant to be sold out?’ It was due to the racism of the security guard turning people away. My battle at the moment is trying to diversify different spaces. Also, we have the housing crisis with the community being pushed further away. It seems easier to have the conversation though post BLM. Unfortunately, I still have to give examples that have happened in the UK and that irks me still. We are still a new country and if we are always constantly looking over to the other side then what we are replicating is something that doesn’t always fit this land. There’s so much possibilities with this version of Ireland. Let’s do it our way.”
“My battle at the moment is trying to diversify different spaces.”
MMD: “Speaking of the other side, Carly perhaps you have some thoughts and observations on what you have heard so far and can enlighten us about how progressive Bristol is in many ways.”
CH: “I feel constantly grateful that I live in Bristol and we do what we do as a night-time community. I put my first party on when I was 13 so I’ve always existed in night-time. When I moved to Bristol in 2004, I didn’t like paying to get in so I started flyering, standing outside until 3 o’clock in the morning for the best part of a decade. In that time, we have seen lots of venues close. Our biggest venue is only 3000, but most are 200, 300, 400 capacity so they are still quite compact. I’ve put on thousands of parties in my time, from dubstep to jungle to ghetto tech, all sorts of underground dance music and other sorts too. I see us as night time providers, we set the mood, we set the tone. Where you are not at work, you are in the night-time economy which is so essential for the cohesion of cities. It’s where we come together as a community, where we go to see people and explore ourselves and enjoy ourselves. It is really vital for a city to have that personality and be able to connect with the other people who live within your environment.
“I see my job as trying to look after the workforce and elevate what the Night-time economy is about, so I have a broader definition and don’t just see it as clubs, pubs, bars, restaurants, students falling out of kebab shops at 3am in the morning and anti-social behaviour. The city shouldn’t stop at six o’clock. You should be able to navigate 24 hours a day within the city. 30% of our population work from 6pm to 6am if you include social care, transportation, 24 hour call centres, late night retail. People work after dark and if your lunch break is one o’clock in the morning, you should be able to get a decent meal. You should have mental health provision and be able to get to work safely and not have to deal with things like sexual harassment when you work behind a bar. There is a lot of things night time workers have to suffer and deal with and my job is to elevate our purpose and make sure we are looked after.
“Every single venue in Bristol has testing kits behind the bar so if you think your drink has been spiked, you can go to the bar and they will test it there and then to see if there’s anything in it.”
“I’ve only been in the role since April of last year but some of the work I have been doing includes launching a city-wide spiking campaign, not to try and spike people cause that would be a bit crap! We recognise it is a problem that is not reported as much as it should be or taken as seriously as it should be by the police. We came together as a partnership across 150 venues that are working in the campaign. Every single venue in Bristol has testing kits behind the bar so if you think your drink has been spiked, you can go to the bar and they will test it there and then to see if there’s anything in it. We also have urine testing kits to help with early triage work and trained 157 bars worth of people to look out for people who might be in a vulnerable situation. If you have a night-time advisor you can collaborate as a city to look after your patrons and show that we can be responsible operators.
We’ve also launched a women’s safety charter with all the venues signed up. I have an ambition to train 1000 night-time workers in spotting sexual harassment inside their venues and working within that level of inter-sectionality so whether you are queer, a person of colour or have different access needs, how does harassment impact on you and how can we create safer spaces across the city with zero tolerance. I fully believe night-time is something to be celebrated and something we can come together to solve some of the more problematic issues in our society. You should be able to let your hair down after dark.
MMD: “One thing you told me about last night is the monthly drop in for testing drugs and the vital spill off elements.”
CH: “We have The Loop in Bristol which is a nationally recognised drug check-in service run by the excellent Fiona Measham who is a doctor out of Liverpool University. We have a monthly service so for any drugs you might have, you can drop off a sample of them. They will check them to see if you’ve been sold what you think you’ve been sold. Nine times out of ten there’s been some nasty things put into the mix of these drugs. We’ve found drugs with plaster of paris in them, people think they are taking one thing and they are taking something else entirely. When people bring these samples through the service it is often the first time they have had a conversation with a professional about their usage, about their habits whether they are on anti-depressants, their sex and weight and age, whether they take insulin. How those drugs may react and if they choose to take recreational drugs what is a safe dosage? If something goes wrong what do they do, and it genuinely saves lives. We are fortunate to have a harm reduction strategy in Bristol City Council. We have a fairly progressive police force. I’m a huge advocate for harm reduction, we can be part of the solution and solve these problems collectively and responsibly.”
MMD: “From what you’ve heard about Dublin so far and where we’re at, are you aghast, basically?”
CH: “I’m actually really shocked to find out that it is so restrictive here. When you lose this energy and culture, it’s really hard to get it back. You have to protect these spaces at all costs. I see our job as night-time gardeners, we lay the seed bed. It is not up to us to design what creativity goes into these spaces but we have to make sure those environments are available for creatives to come into and flourish and grow. When we say culture, whose culture? Who gets to decide what culture is? Culture is ordinary, culture is everyday, it belongs to the people and we should create an environment where people can live their lives and be their fuller selves.”
“I see our job as night-time gardeners, we lay the seed bed. It is not up to us to design what creativity goes into these spaces but we have to make sure those environments are available for creatives to come into and flourish and grow.”
MMD: “It feels like it is no city for young people now with a generation isolated, left behind, priced out of it with nothing to go to.”
SS: “We talked about this the other day at the Arts SPC (Strategic Policy Committee) and I described myself as being a raver at heart. Being a raver will never change. From my perspective and anyone involved in the campaign, I am the oldest involved, but one thing I’ve always done is stay young-minded. That is something people who work in local authorities need to ask themselves about – I mean many of them have kids who also go out and socialise in the city. I wonder how much they consider and analyse and think about how much they are giving back?
“There are a number of cultural shifts we are going to have to go through. I think there’s a general mindset when it comes to night-life that it is a trivial matter and almost belittled. For a lot of us it is the industry we work in. I saw one particular official who was cutting ribbons in a new tech company’s building that was not so long ago our last hope as a night-club in the city. That kind of stuff infuriates me and shows how distant and isolated in their thinking a lot of the officials and people who essentially run Dublin are.
“I saw one particular official who was cutting ribbons in a new tech company’s building that was not so long ago our last hope as a night-club in the city. That kind of stuff infuriates me.”
“We have spoken about multi-purpose venues and a great example of the opposite of that right now in the city is the docklands and the amount of office buildings down there. Those are ghost towns at night and what they have given back to local communities is literally zilch. One of things we will be pushing for is the culture department to be more involved when the leases are being renegotiated on some of these buildings because there has to be more access to space for the public and organisers and not just the big few promoters.”
CB: “For many years there was an absence of any policy framework at local level. I have dedicated a lot of my time trying to weave and stitch changes through Strategic Policy Committees and through the development plans and advocates like Sunil and Robbie. We are seeing some changes and I will give one example, the Poolbeg West development which still isn’t built, obviously. As part of their planning agreement has a provision that they have to provide 5% cultural, creative and community space with 40 artist studios as part of that. What they are doing is building a ‘meanwhile use’ space while they build the rest of it which will have a town hall which will potentially be used for night-time activities.
“This space we are sitting in will be an active market again, but we have to stitch into the agreement that it is considered a late night venue also for purposes such as what is happening here tonight.”
“This space we are sitting in will be an active market again, but we have to stitch into the agreement that it is considered a late night venue also for purposes such as what is happening here tonight. It is also looking at the venues we have and making it easier. We have to simplify the process for promoters and organisers, but we do need dedicated spaces too. I do fear for the city that we have run out of space so we’ll probably be looking at what we have. This is not just important from a clubbing perspective but from a family one. I want to be able to bring my kids into town at night and have things to go to – and not just on culture night. A night-time offering which has something for everybody, but also ensure it is safe. There are so many moving pieces to this such as the justice piece we have spoken about from a safety perspective and the urgent legislative changes that are needed, there’s the transport piece ensuring people can get in and out more easily. There is a public realm piece. We need a better offering for the people who live here, first and foremost but also the people visiting – what are they going to do? Take a tour of the hotels of the city and see a plaque that says ‘here doth lies a former brilliant club that is no longer here’. I feel sorry for younger people, what’s for them after 6pm at night?
MMD: “The toolkit, the event management plan, created for tonight can hopefully benefit others in this instance. How important is that we keep learning and not repeat the same steps each time?”
RM: “People approach organising in different ways and not everyone understands public liability insurance or that you can pick your own security for certain venues. I’ve lost a lot of friends to other cities and I want them to come back and have something to come back to. People need joy and there has been a really big lack of joy and play and hopefulness and that is also the result of all these big social pushes – Repeal, Equality – from what I’m feeling from the people we work with, it’s that we’re tired, we’re exhausted, we are really hanging on to every little piece of joy we have. I feel I am moving from a space of delusion where I am going to a venue saying we need a closed space, this is our ethos, we always need gender neutral bathrooms, we need the space to be accessible. That already discounts so many spaces. The sub-cultures right now are really suffering. We have the likes of Temporary Pleasure and Club Comfort pushing the dialogue on queer club culture but that can only go so far. And what I feel from being a minority within a minority within a minority is that you get pushed further back. It feels like pre-BLM conversations that haven’t carried on because we had that big gap of Covid where a lot of the diversity and inclusion things weren’t able be properly carried out and carried through. It’s on social media but when you ask for it in real life space, how does it carry over? You feel like you are constantly starting over.
SS: “One thing we’ve never been able to do is explore buildings like this for electronic and dance music, build an all-purpose event space. We have lost night-life in the suburbs, when we change the licensing laws it is important our planning rules speak to them. From a creative point of view even having a Dublin sound. One place I played in early years was Slovakia in the likes of nuclear bunkers and they developed their own industrial rhythmic style of techno. It felt they have something special – we could have a range of sounds if we could explore these buildings. I am very positive about the future and what can come.”
MMD: “Since we have had to wait this long, how crucial is that we get it right rather than end up with a half-way house solution?”
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of progressive, persistence beats resistance. You have to just crack on with it… Give people the opportunity and the culture will come, the people will do it.”
CH: “I disagree. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of progressive, persistence beats resistance. You have to just crack on with it. If the political will is there, if it is possible to create some of these spaces and test a couple of venues that can push these licenses a little bit later. Start experimenting, don’t wait for the perfect plan to land in the city. Give people the opportunity and the culture will come, the people will do it.
Night Moves was presented in partnership with Dublin City Council and generously supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media’s Local Live Programming Scheme.
Photos: Róisín Murphy O’Sullivan
*The text of the new bill is available here.