At present, large shops in Northern Ireland can open between 1pm and 6pm on Sunday. Minister Alex Attwood has published a discussion paper outlining different options for Sunday trading hours, including the English model which allows large shops to open for six hours between 10am and 6pm and complete deregulation, the Scottish model.
Mr Attwood said his priority was “getting the balance right between earlier opening and retaining the tradition of Sunday as a family day”.
“Easing the current restrictions could help the local economy, benefit the tourism and support regeneration,” he said.
However, the Church of Ireland Board for Social Theology expressed concern that the options presented for consideration in the discussion paper do not include any option for reduced opening.
“Although stating that he wishes to see Sunday preserved as a family day, both his statements and the discussion document on this subject seem to suggest this initiative is based around the economic concerns of large retailers,” the board said.
“The hours on Sunday when employees are not compelled to work are very important for families to spend time with each other.”
The board said it was “surprising” that the Minister had failed to mention the church in his considerations, despite 45% of people in Northern Ireland regularly attending church on a Sunday.
It expressed further dismay at what it perceived to be an attempt by Minister Attwood to “downplay” the importance of Christmas Day and Easter Day by extending his considerations to trading on the holidays.
They said: “We reiterate our commitment to enter into useful dialogue with the Minister on this subject, and would encourage him to meet with us to address the concerns of church members who seem to have been ignored as key stakeholders so far.”