By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Drinkers were toasting the government after it gave them a double dividend of a price freeze on drinks and extended pub opening hours so they have longer to savor their pints.
The price of the pint has become a hot political issue as the government struggles to preserve the key national incomes deal as inflation has surged to a 15-year high.
Inflation is now running at over 5 percent and Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Tom Kitt said drink prices accounted for over 1 percent of that rise.
The six-month freeze will now hold prices for 16 drinks — a range of beers, spirits, wines, bottled water and mixers — at what was charged on May 15 in pubs, hotels and restaurants.
Those that have raised their prices beyond the May 15 level will have to lower them.
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Kitt described his freeze order as an "interim" counter-inflation move. The number of price inspectors is being doubled to enforce the freeze and pub landlords face a fine or six months in jail if they are caught flouting the new order.
New laws are on the way to liberalize the issuing of licenses and increase competition in the pub trade.
In the long term, Kitt said, competition was the most effective means of keeping prices down.
The Vintners Federation of Ireland dismissed the freeze as "a populist measure" that would have little impact on inflation.
Some elaborately decorated and trendy new pubs in Dublin have sent the price of the pint soaring to £2.80, in comparison to a £1.50 pint tracked down in one pub in Tipperary.
Chic, newly wealthy Celtic Tiger cubs appear willing to pay the high prices in these meccas of style. Kitt has appealed to them to help police the freeze.
Consumer Association chief executive Dermot Jewel gave the order a cautious welcome. He said pubs that had been profiteering on May 15 would be able to continue to do so but said the freeze was the start of "a necessary move in the right direct that allowed time for evaluation of the market."
With not enough pubs, particularly in new suburbs, those who can get the money together to buy one have made one of the best investments available in the Celtic Tiger economy.
Pub prices have spiraled as profits have soared, with allegations of profiteering and 400 percent mark-ups on some drinks.
A Kerry pub owner’s son, Justice Minister John O’Donoghue also brought into force his Intoxicating Liquor laws to extend pub opening hours.
As tourism has boomed in recent years, the industry has been strongly arguing opening times have been out of step with EU neighbors.
The last minute pre-midnight rush to down last orders in pubs is now a thing of the past — at least on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Drinking laws dating back to 1833 have been amended so that pubs can remain open an extra hour and a half on those days.
Customers will also be given another 30 minutes drinking-up time — meaning everyone must be out by 1 a.m.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, last orders must be in by 11.30 p.m. and premises cleared by midnight.
The new regime will abolish an Irish institution which has baffled tourists — the so-called "Holy Hour," between 2-4 p.m. when pubs had to close.
The shutdown was originally designed to clear pubs and get people back to work during the week. On Sundays, it was intended to boost traditional values by forcing husbands to go home for lunch with their families.
The new laws also aim to curb underage drinking. In the future, the onus is on pubs to determine whether customers are minors.