The weeks leading up to Christmas are normally a bumper time for the Mourne Seafood Bar in Belfast. One of the most popular restaurants in the city, empty tables at the Mourne are usually a collector’s item at weekends during the festive period. But not last Saturday. As protestors with Union Jack scarves across their faces stalked the streets of Belfast, many guests called to cancel their bookings.
‘We probably lost between £7000 and £8000 in our two Belfast restaurants,’ Bob McCoubrey joint owner of the Mourne Seafood Bar and its sister restaurant in Belfast, Home, as well as another premises in Dundrum, County Down, told the Sunday Business Post. McCoubrey estimated there were 50 to 60 cancellations on Saturday alone.
‘The cancellations were mainly people worried about public transport, about getting home after dinner,’ he said. ‘The general public are not afraid but it is the hassle factor – they fear about how they will get home and are worried about being stuck in town.’
The Mourne Seafood Bar is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses in Belfast, and across Northern Ireland, effected by the on-goings loyalist protests. Belfast City Council’s recent ruling that the Union Jack will fly continuously from City Hall on fifteen designated days, rather than all year round sparked the demonstrations. The decision was the result of a compromise agreement between the Alliance Party, who hold the balance of power on the council, and Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
The loyalist protests are estimated to have cost Belfast businesses £3 million in lost revenue on Saturday. The true figure for losses could rise much higher, said Glyn Roberts, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIRTA). ‘This is the most important trading time of the year. Our members are hoping for a good end to what has been a difficult year for many and now they are finding that they have lost trade and are being forced to close,’ he said.
Last Saturday should have been one of the busiest trading days in the year for HMV in Donegall Arcade, in the centre of Belfast. Instead footfall was down 40 per cent, said manager James Rider. In all, the number of customers passing through the store has declined a quarter since the protests began.
‘This is roughly in line with that is happening across the city centre. I know of seven or eight other shops that would have seen similar falls in footfall in the last week,’ Rider said.
As protests have spread beyond Belfast to other towns and centres across Northern Ireland, many business people are concerned about how long the disruption will continue. ‘If it lasts through December it’s frightening to think what could happen to businesses,’ said Rider.
‘There is a fear that this could drag on until Christmas,’ said NIRTA’s Glyn Roberts said. ‘The blunt reality is that for some businesses unless they have a good Christmas they not be here in the New Year.’
Speaking in the wake of the fire bombing of a police patrol car outside the constituency office of East Belfast Alliance MP Naomi Long on Monday night, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers said that protestors were, ‘doing untold damage to hard-pressed traders in the run-up to Christmas.’
‘And they undermine those who are working tirelessly to promote Northern Ireland to bring about investment, jobs and prosperity,’ Ms Villiers said.
Many are worried that images of burning flags and rioters on the streets, so redolent of the dark days of the Troubles, could do lasting damage to the North’s hard won reputation as a tourist destination. ‘Probably the biggest cost is the whole impact of what’s happening on Belfast as a destination,’ Bob McCoubrey, proprietor of the Mourne Seafood Bar, said.
Having invested heavily in an international campaign entitled ‘Our Time, Our Place’ for 2012, the wave of protests are the last thing Northern Ireland Tourist Board, or the local economy, needs. ‘A lot of people south of the border have never come to Northern Ireland. This won’t help to encourage them to come,’ said Mr McCoubrey.
Questions have been raised about the decision to vote on the controversial issue of the flag on Belfast City Hall at such an important time of the business years. In HMV, manager James Rider was ‘concerned’ that councillors did not decide to postpone the vote until the New Year given its potential effect during the busiest trading period of the year. ‘Given the current economic climate in Northern Ireland, I just can’t see why someone would not have gone, ‘hang on, let’s push this decision back’. There was obviously going to be some sort of political fall out to it.’
Others believe that, regardless of the timing, Northern Irish leaders need to focus on the economic issues, not national symbols. ‘The number one priority should be ‘what impact will this have on the economy?’ They (the politicians) talk about tourism and the economy all year round but when they get a chance to take a cheap shot at the other side, this is both sides, they cannot resist it,’ Mr McCoubrey said. ‘The rest of the world has moved on. And the business community is stuck in the middle.’
Northern Ireland is certainly facing challenging economic times. Most of the protesters hail from working class Protestant communities scarred by de-industralisation and with some of the lowest levels of educational attainment anywhere in the UK. Meanwhile, unemployment continues to rise in Northern Ireland, even as it is falling elsewhere in the UK.
Earlier this week, the latest Labour Force Survey showed that the number of people claiming unemployment benefits in Northern Ireland is up almost one per cent on last year, at 7.8 per cent. The number of people claiming unemployment related benefits stood at 64,700 in November 2012 – an increase of 500 on the previous month. 54.6 per cent of those unemployed in Northern Ireland have been unemployed for one year or more. This figure is up 16.2 per cent on last year.
Even before this week’s unrest, businesses in Northern Ireland faced a tough trading environment. One in five shops in Northern Ireland are now vacant, according to a recent survey by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC). This figure, the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, is nearly twice the national average.
‘Belfast already has 1 in 4 shops vacant and the overall trend is moving toward a quarter of all shops being vacant by the middle of 2013,’ said Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts. The protests, he said, could lead to increases in vacancy. Many shop owners are also afraid of attacks on their property.
‘What we need now is to focus on how to move things forward,’ Roberts said. ‘This is the responsibility of all the main political parties at Stormont. We cannot afford for these protests to continue. I would appeal to the protesters to recognise the damage they are doing to the economy and to stop.’
The article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 16/12/2012.