Time to take Paceville by the horns

It is not for nothing that Paceville has gained its notoriety for ‘lawlessness’. For Paceville is also an industry in its own right – and an increasingly shady one at that – and the interests vested therein are now considerable. 

There is an undeniable tendency to immediately politicise all issues in this country. Saturday’s accident at a Paceville nightclub was no exception, with immediate calls for the government to ‘shoulder its responsibilities’ in the wake of an accident that left over 70 casualties – many of them young teenagers – two critical.

As with most such overtly political reactions, however, this one misses the wood for the trees. Security is undeniably an issue in Paceville; but this is a very separate and distinct issue we are looking at here. Such accidents cannot be avoided by increased police presence alone… what Saturday’s accident points towards is a general laxity of approach to health and safety issues at practically every level.

Starting with the club owners themselves, who have the ultimate responsibility to see to such basic necessities and emergency exits and fire escapes… to the authorities responsible for licensing catering establishments; to the law enforcement bodies whose job is to ensure that basic door policy controls are in place… all the way up to the political level, where governments have generally turned a blind eye to such matters for decades.

As for the precise cause of this particular incident, the ongoing inquiry will presumably clear up many unanswered questions. There is, however, an indirect cause we can all see with our own bare eyes. 

It was certainly not the action of any gas that caused that glass bannister to break, but the stampede itself. Inevitably, one must ask why an establishment capable of admitting so many people had only one exit functional at the time. And if that is indeed the only exit, how did it get licensed to operate as a nightclub in the first place?

It would be a mistake to concentrate only on Paceville. A cursory glance at Malta’s health and safety standards will reveal similar shortcomings across the board. Last month’s accident at the Papaqli Ghall-iStrina event in Luqa was a classic case in point. And we can look further afield, such as towards the construction industry.

But Malta’s entertainment Mecca is particularly prone to such accidents on account of several factors. One is the sheer number of people present in Paceville, which creates the propensity for overcrowding (that many will also be inebriated doesn’t help, either). Another, the fact that many nightlife establishments are manifestly ill-equipped to cope with such large numbers.

This may not be true for all nightclubs… but standard safety features such as emergency exits (or overhead fire sprinklers, or external staircases in high rise buildings, etc.) are not always present… and, where present, are sometimes inoperable. 

Patrons are as a rule not carded for ID, and underage teens can gain access to Paceville clubs with ease. Not all clubs set a maximum limit of patrons, and no such limit is ever enforced. Security is often left in the hands of untrained, unregulated ‘bouncers’, who in turn become the cause for complaints. Calls for greater regulation in this area – especially after one bouncer was convicted for drug trafficking in 2012 – have so far gone unheeded.

It is not for nothing that Paceville has gained its notoriety for ‘lawlessness’. For Paceville is also an industry in its own right – and an increasingly shady one at that – and the interests vested therein are now considerable. 

As with other such interest groups, governments have always been coy about imposing changes which may prove unpopular with entrepreneurs. In this sense at least, Paceville is also a power-broker in its own right.

From this perspective, Saturday’s fracas was also the inevitable outcome of a national tendency to ignore a wide range of issues, of which security forms a small part. As with so many other similar incidents, there has been a knee-jerk reaction to establish culpability only with hindsight… regardless of the fact that there are basic EU standards that supposedly underpin our entire establishment licensing regime. 

As a result, we express ‘shock’ at the lack of existing safety facilities… when all along we’ve all known they were never there. 

Dramatic though Saturday’s disaster was, it should not really have taken us by surprise. Warnings have sporadically been sounded over the years. In 2012, parliament’s Social Affairs Committee published a report for public consultation on security and public order in Paceville. The result was a very interesting, 27-page report that highlighted a number of proposals. 

These included (among many others) that “security needs to be increased on all roads, and there should be security checks in nightclubs and bars to ensure these all comply with required safety measures”. It also observed that “Laws need to be revised and strengthened to reflect today’s realities and punishments need to be made harsher to act as a deterrent.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Interior Minister Carmelo Abela have come out in favour of revising the rules and regulations governing Paceville. This is commendable… but much of the work has already been cut out for them.

All that remains is to actually implement the changes proposed in the 2012 report; and above all to stop avoiding a confrontation with the monster that Paceville has become.

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