People in front of a Lidl supermarket (Photo by K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash)
20 May 2021

Minimum unit pricing could see alcohol in Ireland twice as dear as in NI

Ireland | More trouble brewing on the island of Ireland. The Republic is reportedly planning to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) for alcohol before the North. This could result in beer being up to twice as expensive in the Republic than in Northern Ireland. Guess what will happen? Irish retailers will cry into their beers while smugglers will laugh up their sleeves.

The Republic’s government is pushing ahead with its plans regardless in a matter of weeks, according to a memo, which was leaked to media on 24 April 2021. The Republic will follow both England and Scotland, which introduced MUP for alcohol in 2018 and Wales in 2020.

Curbs on the sale of alcohol have been introduced in the Republic of Ireland on a staggered basis. In January, new restrictions put a stop to multibuy offers and banned alcohol from being included in supermarket voucher schemes.

Tightening the screws

These measures are part of the Public Health Alcohol Act, which came into law in 2018. One of the early measures was to cordon off alcohol sections from general aisles in supermarkets.

Reportedly, the government seeks to introduce a minimum price of EUR 0.10 per gram of alcohol, to reduce alcohol consumption and related harms. Under MUP, a 440 ml can of lager will cost EUR 1.32 (USD 1.60), a 750 ml bottle of chardonnay EUR 7.75 (USD 9.30), and a 700 ml bottle of spirits EUR 20.71 (USD 26).

Supermarket own-brands will also be affected. Tesco’s vodka is likely to increase in price from around EUR 13 to EUR 21, and a EUR 3.99 bottle of wine to EUR 6.50.

The Irish government had hoped that MUP would be implemented in Northern Ireland at the same time, to prevent people from simply crossing the border to buy cheaper alcohol there. However, Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann told The Sunday Independent newspaper that he does not expect MUP to be introduced in the north until May 2022 at the earliest.

Alcohol Action Ireland, a public health organisation, welcomed the decision, after the group spent years campaigning for it to be introduced.

Smuggling – the new workaround

Ireland’s alcohol industry body, Drinks Ireland, opposes the move. It said that a bottle of Bombay gin would cost EUR 18 in Northern Ireland but EUR 29 in the Republic with MUP. An 18-pack of Bulmers cider currently costs EUR 12.61 in Northern Ireland, less than half of what it will cost in the Republic under MUP.

Patricia Callan, Director of Drinks Ireland, pointed out that alcohol consumption has declined over the past 30 years. It dropped 6.6 percent last year, with beer sales down 17 percent. “There hasn’t been anything that should trigger this reaction from the government,” she was quoted as saying.

Besides, many fear that the pricing difference will persuade people from the Republic to travel across the border to buy cheaper alcohol from off-licenses in Northern Ireland. And while they are there they might also stock up on other stuff, causing border-based businesses to lose out.

More worrying even is the prospect of increased smuggling. The 500 km long border between the Republic and Northern Ireland has 208 official border crossings, plus hundreds of paths and dirt tracks, which are too many to control.

Publicans in the Republic are miffed that they will have to wait until 7 June to serve punters outside (not inside), whereas Northern Ireland already reopened its pubs on 30 April.

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