Ian Sansom – Stranger than Fiction

Ian Sansom is a true gent, and if you’ve never picked up one of his hilarious novels you should. This feature on Sansom and his latest novel, The Bad Book Affair, appeared in The Sunday Herald on Sunday 24 January.

A prominent Northern Irish politician involved in a sensational sex scandal. Accusations of dodgy dealings in the corridors of power. Restive natives in Ulster’s bible-belt. The closing chapters of the Robinson saga have not yet been written but already a book has been published about it. Or at least so it would seem to anyone picking up a copy of The Bad Book Affair, the new novel from Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom.

The fourth instalment in Sansom’s popular detective series The Mobile Library, The Bad Book Affair features a duplicitous unionist politician, marital infidelity, accusations of financial impropriety – and all set against the backdrop of growing instability in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government and a looming election. Throw in a duffel-coat wearing, crime-solving Jewish librarian called Israel Armstrong and a four-wheeled library trundling along the north coast of Ireland and the result could almost pass as a tongue-in-cheek précis of the last few weeks in Northern Irish politics. In a literary career spanning more than a decade, Sansom has seen life imitate art often enough not to be surprised by The Bad Book Affair’s remarkable verisimilitude. ‘Am I surprised by the similarities? No, the amazing thing, for me, is that other people are surprised by it,’ the hirsute writer remarks, peering over his reading glasses.

‘Novels hold up a mirror to the real world. In any good work of fiction you will always get soundings and reflections from real life. What surprises me is that more people don’t pick up on these similarities more often.

‘If literary history teaches us one thing, it is that people are bad,’ he says, his glance momentarily resting on a banks of shelves overflowing with well-thumbed classics from literary heavyweights such as Roth, Faulkner and Bellow that occupies the back wall of his second floor office in the Seamus Heaney centre in Queen’s university, Belfast.

‘Obviously when it is people in public life it gives it an extra piquancy but we are all capable of lying, cheating, stealing. The ramifications of a politician’s actions are potentially more serious but the actual actions in themselves just reflect the truth of our sad, pathetic little lives.’

Such a pessimistic view of life seems entirely at odds with the witty, garrulous and light-hearted character in whose company two hours appears to pass in a mater of minutes. But Sansom, in an uncharacteristically serious moment, explains why he sees no such contradiction. ‘We are all flawed – that is the story of humanity. If you read the bible, on page one you’ve got this wonderful idyll, turn to page two and its over. Really it’s all downhill from there. Adam, Eve, Saul, Kane and Abel. They are all just giving us a way to understand ourselves, both the good and the bad,’ he says.

Citing scripture to support your opinions is all too common in Northern Ireland, quoting Flaubert, Gogol, Polonius and Goethe (as Sansom does freely) markedly less now. Having grown up in Southend-On-Sea, Sansom spent his undergraduate days at Cambridge and Oxford, where he wrote a PhD thesis on the poetry of WH Auden. Today, his accent, an unusual hybrid of muted estuary English and received pronunciation, retains telling traces of both home and alma mater.

Like Israel, The Mobile Library series’ ill-fated protagonist, Ian Sansom moved from London to Northern Ireland; although while his anti-hero crossed the Irish Sea alone, the author made the journey with his wife, a BBC journalist born in Belfast, and their young family. Sansom is understandably reluctant to identify himself too strongly with his bumbling character’s search for purpose along the Antrim coast, but he does admit sharing one significant trait with Israel – a deep-seated fondness for libraries.

‘I didn’t grow up in a bookish household so libraries were always where I gravitated towards,’ Sansom says, his speech quickening noticeably as he recalls the mobile library that routinely visited his primary school: ‘I thought it was a genuinely magical experience. It was almost like the circus was coming to town, there was so much to enjoy. I probably wanted to run away with the mobile library, too.’

In his younger days, Sansom even conducted romances among the aisles. ‘I first kissed my wife in Cambridge university library.’ Can he remember where exactly? I ask. Of course he can: ‘It was in the lift in the west wing. I was an old smoothie back then,’ he laughs before outlining his belief in the sexual allure of libraries. ‘They have a certain unmistakeable erotic charge to them. Libraries hum with possibility and change. You are coming into a place where possibilities become endless. Have you ever noticed in Hollywood blockbusters how many riddles get solved in libraries? It’s no coincidence.’

Sansom gives the impression of a writer born into his craft but he maintains that the transition from pursuing the bookshelves to appearing on them was not as seamless as his impressive cv suggests. ‘After I finished university I was writing and also doing lots of different jobs during the day. I would write a chapter in a couple of days and then forget about it and move on to something else. I was effectively binge writing.’

Like many prone to binging, it was only an encounter with a fellow sufferer that straightened him out. ‘I was working as a painter and decorator when I bumped into a novelist, a proper novelist. I asked him “how do you do it?” He just said to sit down and write 500 words a day everyday. Since then I’ve applied the rule of regularity.’ And, as the multiple copies of his various books and side projects gathered around his writing desk attests, Sansom has been a writer ever since.

The subtly bookish atmosphere at the Heaney centre, where Sansom lectures on Queen’s highly regarded creative writing program, seems to suit the author well. His office looks more like a traditional writer’s study; framed ordnance survey maps of Northern Ireland on the walls, an antique tea set in the corner. Life seems agreeably slow: we meet during term time, but there are precious few students about. Indeed, our conversation is only disturbed once, by a gentle knock on the door. It is Ciaran Carson, the esteemed Belfast poet and Sansom’s colleague at Queen’s, with a question about marking schemes.

Creative writing as an academic discipline has its critics, and Sansom admits to misgivings over his own suitability for such a course of study. ‘I’m not sure I would have enjoyed being a creative writing student.’ Nevertheless, he does ‘believe in teaching creative writing.’

‘You can teach people craft and technique, which is essential for a writer. But what you can’t do is to teach them to have ideas.’ Ideas are one thing Ian Sansom has never been short of, though precisely which ideas he decides to work on next has probably never interested so many. Neither Iris nor Peter Robinson are renowned for their interest in literature but both could be forgiven for taking an interest in the follow-up to The Bad Book Affair.

‘Everyone is asking ‘what are you writing about next?’, as if I have some remarkable insight into the future. If that was the case I’d probably write about the winning numbers for the national lottery. Or about salvation and redemption. Now that does seem rather topical.’

The Bad Book Affair is out on January 25 published by Fourth Estate.

Lough Rynn Hotel, Mohill

This review of the Lough Rynn Hotel in Mohill appeared in The Irish Times on Saturday 16 January ’10.

I first visited Lough Rynn well over 20 years ago. It was the day of my first communion. We squashed into my mother’s blue Renault 5 for the half-hour journey north from our Longford home to spend a sepia-tinged afternoon roaming around the adventure playground (myself and my brother) and the two-century-old big house (my parents).

The Victorian manor house once belonged to arguably Ireland’s most notorious landlord, the eviction-happy third earl of Leitrim, William Sydney Clements, who was murdered in 1878.

The swings, slides and climbing frames that I remember from my last visit have disappeared, and this ancestral pile has been transformed into a four-star hotel. Opened in 2006, it sits on 120 hectares of green lawns, Scots pines, manicured gardens and lake-shore paths.

With the Arctic winter blowing a gale outside, and a queue at check-in – we were there for a wedding – I took refuge with a hot toddy by the fire burning in the enormous inglenook fireplace in the high-ceilinged baronial hall.

When we were led up to our bedroom it was difficult to avoid feeling pretty privileged – if not quite like Lord Leitrim, at least like one of his more favoured guests. The amiable porter gave us a whistle-stop tour of the room – is it just me or are hotel televisions becoming increasingly difficult to switch on? – but left just as I was getting out my wallet to tip her. Lough Rynn’s staff clearly weren’t trained in the US.

The dark-wood theme from downstairs continued in our room, although a mahogany writing desk, full-size standing wardrobe and large TV unit left what should have been a reasonably spacious double room feeling cramped.

A pair of upholstered chairs provided the perfect spot for savouring the room’s best feature, a spectacular view of Lough Rynn; swans were sitting on its frozen surface as the sun set.

A marble floor gave the spacious en-suite bathroom a pleasingly opulent feel. The good-quality toiletries and powerful shower, with its wide metal head, were just the thing to revive us for the wedding reception. The trouser press came in handy, too.

Suited and booted, we made our way to the meal, past walls lined with all manner of golf memorabilia, from vintage tees and scorecards to putters and V-neck jerseys. Unfortunately for golf enthusiasts, the hotel’s vaunted Nick Faldo-designed course is still being built; it is not expected to open until the end of next year.

The estate’s stables and pheasantry have been converted into additional suites. A long glass corridor leads past these rooms to a new banqueting hall and bar. The views are stunning.

After plenty of eating, drinking and dancing we finally headed for bed after a nightcap in the intimate Dungeon Bar. Ignore the name: with its underfloor heating, it is the hotel’s cosiest bar.

It was a pity to arrive upstairs to find our room vibrating to the whirr of the air conditioner. It might be great for those balmy Leitrim summer nights, but I had to call reception to figure out how to turn it off.

Peace restored, I slept soundly in a very comfortable bed, heavy purple curtains ensuring I was undisturbed by the early-morning sunlight.

Breakfast was passable at best. The continental buffet was well stocked with fruit and cereal, but poor sausages and black pudding let the cooked breakfast down. Pots of tea and bottomless glasses of orange juice helped soothe any lingering disco aches and provided fortification for a refreshing stroll around the hotel’s majestic grounds. The walled gardens, with their ornate fonts and ponds, are particularly impressive, and the nature trail is well worth exploring.

Looking out across the frozen lake on a beautifully clear, if bracingly cold, morning, Lough Rynn felt as familiar and as striking as ever. A few days later my girlfriend received a kindly-worded automated e-mail from the hotel management, asking us to come again.

Next time I’m looking for a classy break in the heart of rural Ireland, I certainly will.

Where Lough Rynn Castle Hotel, Mohill, Co Leitrim, 071-9632700, loughrynn.ie.

What Four-star hotel in Victorian manor house overlooking Lough Rynn.

Rooms 43 rooms and suites, plus six houses available for rent on the estate.

Best rates Rooms from €79. Specials include Winter Warmer of BB, plus dinner and a bottle of wine, from €85 per person sharing; and two-night St Valentine’s break, with bed, breakfast and dinner one evening, plus a bottle of champagne, for €185pps.

Restaurant and bars Sandstone Restaurant, Cocktail Bar Leitrim and Dungeon Bar.

Amenities Excellent John McGahern Library, broadband internet, beautiful walks, boating.

From Family Robinson Woes to Affairs of State

I wrote a comment piece on the political fall-out from the Robinson affair for The Scotsman last week: (Published 13/01/10)

A leading unionist politician in Northern Ireland laid low by a lurid sex scandal splashed across the red tops. Accusations of backhanders from property developers. Political unrest in Ulster’s bible-belt. The plot of The Bad Book Affair, a new novel by Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom published next week, must have sounded pretty far-fetched when it arrived on his editor’s desk – but in the parallel universe that is Northern Irish politics truth really is stranger than fiction.

The scandal that has engulfed Peter Robinson threatens not only to cut short the political career of the Democratic Unionist party leader but could yet bring down the entire Stormont administration. But, unlike so many Northern Irish crises, this one began calmly when, just over a week ago, a select band of journalists were invited to Robinson’s East Belfast home. Briefings are part and parcel of political life but this was no normal ‘meet the press’ evening: instead, holding back tears in his front room, the First Minister explained that his wife of over thirty years, and fellow parliamentarian, Iris had attempted suicide following an affair.

Initially, revelations of Iris Robinson’s infidelity were received with a mixture of incredulity and black humour on the streets of Belfast but politicians from both sides of the tribal divide maintained a respectful silence. It was only with the accusation, made on a BBC current affairs television program, that Iris had borrowed two sums of £25,000 each from property developers to set her 19-year-old lover up in business that what began as a straightforward sex scandal – albeit with Mrs Robinson’s odious statements on homosexuality and hard-line Christian views adding extra spice – morphed into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

That the personal problems of a politician – even the devolved assembly’s most senior – should imperil devolution itself reflects the wider impasse on the issue of policing and justice powers that has paralysed Stormont in recent months. Sinn Fein want control of policing and justice to be transferred from Westminster to Belfast now, if not sooner; the DUP (their erstwhile coalition partners) have thus far resisted such moves, despite Gordon Brown pledging £900 million to smooth the transition.

Amid much publicity on Monday, the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds announced that Peter Robinson has resigned ‘temporarily’ as First Minister, designating Arlene Foster to take over his duties for the next six weeks. In invoking the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in this way, Robinson has repeated a familiar tactic of his predecessor but one, David Trimble. But while the media clamoured over themselves to admire Robinson’s political nous and speculate on whether or not he has saved his head, two crucial points were widely missed: first, Sinn Fein have given the DUP three weeks to resurrect a deal on the devolution of policing and justice, and, second, Robinson has nominated himself to head the negotiating team to meet their republican counterparts.

Reaching a deal with Sinn Fein is crucial to the short-term future of both the DUP and the current incarnation of Stormont. If no agreement on the transfer of policing is forthcoming then there is every possibility that Sinn Fein will collapse the assembly when Robinson returns from his six-week sabbatical by simply refusing to re-nominate Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing only works if both nationalists and unionists can agree to it. In the absence of the majority player in the nationalist bloc the assembly would automatically dissolve and fresh elections held.

Before events of the last week overtook them, the DUP could have faced such elections in reasonably buoyant mood. Despite growing internal dissent from the right of the party and the prospect of losing votes to former Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister’s anti-agreement Traditional Unionist Voice, Robinson’s colleagues would have expected to profit by positioning themselves as the party that refused to hand control of policing to former terrorists – a rather spurious claim, incidentally, given that Sinn Fein members already sit on the Policing Board and numerous District Policing Partnerships.

Now the situation facing the North’s largest party is very different. Grassroots DUP supporters include many evangelical Christians who, shocked by the salacious tales emanating from the Robinsons’ door, are likely to abandon the party in droves for Allister’s TUV, while more mainstream voters could return once again to the Ulster Unionist party. Such a split in the unionist vote could quite conceivably see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland, an honour that brings with it the right to nominate their choice for First Minister, almost certainly McGuinness. An administration with the former IRA man from Derry at its head would be anathema to any unionist – triggering another, this time potentially fatal, crisis in Northern Ireland’s fledgling experiment in devolved government.

So what are the prospects of avoiding this doomsday scenario? Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, rarely anything more than icy, have plumbed new depths in recent months. The power-sharing partners’ continuing inability to agree a joint anti-sectarian strategy has been decried by David Ford, leader of the moderate Alliance party, and last month McGuinness used a meeting of the North-South ministerial council in Limavady, County Derry to publicly lambast the First Minister for the failure to devolve policing. Robinson, who was standing barely five feet from his deputy on the same platform, looked stunned.

Nevertheless, an agreement on policing is increasingly in everyone’s best interests. And not just to save Peter Robinson or the assembly. In the early hours of last Friday morning, before the radio phone-ins had started to hum with chatter about Mrs Robinson’s dalliances, a car bomb seriously injured an off-duty policeman in Randallstown, outside Belfast. The victim, who was lucky to escape with his life, was a Catholic policeman, the perpetrators dissident republicans hell bent on catapulting the North back to the dark ages.

Regardless of its eventual fall-out, the Robinson affair will not spell a large scale return to violence – indeed on the very day the First Minister was briefing reporters on his wife’s indiscretion the loyalist Ulster Defence Association finally announced that it had decommissioned. However, the next few weeks are certainly crucial for the stability of Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson has bought just enough time to make a deal to save its current political process, though whether he can save it or himself remains to be seen.

Peter Geoghegan

An Irishman's Diary

In response to the awful fire that ripped through St Mel’s cathedral on Christmas morning I wrote this piece for An Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times. The piece appeared 04/01/2010.

‘THE ONLY thing the town has had to be proud of is gone”. This terse comment, left on the internet forum Boards.ie, said it all: for the people of Longford, St Mel’s cathedral is not just a place of worship, it is an iconic landmark, a repository of history, and a symbol of the self-less devotion of an impoverished nation.

Nevertheless, the fire that tore through St Mel’s on Christmas morning has eviscerated one of Ireland’s best known cathedrals and cast a shadow across the midlands market town in whose life it has been central for over 150 years.

Like many in Longford, I was awoken on that morning not by the sound of excited children opening presents or family members enjoying Christmas breakfast but by the anxious voice of a neighbour. The call came just after 8am, by then St Mel’s had already been on fire for around three hours. Half asleep, I stood at the back window of my mother’s kitchen staring in horror as – less than a mile away – bright orange flames danced across the cruciform cathedral’s outstretched arms and thick black smoke bellowed into the sky. A few hours later, the building was still smouldering – the walls had survived the conflagration but almost everything inside was destroyed.

Christmas Masses did take place in Longford, although in a nearby community centre, not the town’s magnificent neo-classical cathedral. Given that fire services were tackling the blaze throughout the morning, it was remarkable that the traditional ceremonies were held at all, but that they were speaks volumes for the indefatigable spirit that has characterised St Mel’s from its earliest days.

St Mel’s cathedral was the brainchild of Bishop William O’Higgins, a native of Drumlish, in north Longford, and a fervent supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the Emancipation movement. Even after 1829, Catholics in the midlands continued to face persecution, strengthening O’Higgins’s resolve that the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise needed its own purpose-built cathedral.

Educated in Paris, O’Higgins found inspiration for his new cathedral in the City of Lights’ famous Madeleine cathedral, as well as the Pantheon and the Basilica of St John Lateran. On May 19th, 1840, more than 40,000 parishioners as well as clergy from a far afield as Australia and the United States were present as the foundation stone, which was taken from the ruined 8th-century cathedral of St Mel in Ardagh, Co Longford, was laid.

It is impossible to overestimate the psychological import of St Mel’s cathedral for the people of Longford and surrounding counties, particularly in its early years. Longford in the middle of the 19th century was a poor market town, the majority of whose inhabitants lived in mud huts and thatched houses, but from the midst of this squalor the cathedral’s massive Doric pilasters began to rise. The local economy also benefited: most of the limestone used in the construction came from west Longford and Knockcroghery in Co Roscommon.

Since opening in 1856 – building work was suspended during the famine – St Mel’s has housed practically every item of historical interest or significance in county Longford. As well as the 10th-century crozier of St Mel and various reliquaries, the Holy Family Altar, which had been rescued from a Roman church that was sacked during the Garibaldi campaign, was lost in the fire.

I left Longford many years ago – had the tragic fire not happened during the holidays I probably would not have been around to witness it – but, like so many others, St Mel’s was a vital presence in my life. It was first and foremost a religious place – I made my communion and confirmation there, and celebrated countless births, marriages and deaths within its now fire ravaged walls – but my strongest memories of it are cultural: almost every trip home incorporated a pit-stop to admire the finest works of art in Longford, the remarkable Harry Clarke windows that adorned the cathedral.

The stained glass, like so much else in St Mel’s, is irreplaceable, and the estimate of €2 million worth of damage quoted in the media has caused dismay on the streets of Longford. As one St Stephen’s Day reveller put it to me, “It will cost that much just to get the cathedral to the point where you can spend money repairing it.” The real cost of repairing St Mel’s is likely to run into eight figures, but in Longford town I found a genuine determination to see the cathedral rebuilt. History is on its side: in 1838 Bishop O’Higgins travelled to all 41 parishes of the diocese, raising £2,000 from ordinary people for the new cathedral.

O’Higgins’s contemporaries have many difficult questions to answer but, for many in Longford and across the Midlands, restoring St Mel’s is about much more than religion.

Belfast's Booming?

Feature on how small retailers in the North have been affected by shoppers (and their cash) coming over the border. First appeared in Sunday Business Post 03/01/2010.

On Chichester Street, in the centre of Belfast, the lines of southern registered coaches have become a familiar sight. Every day they arrive, at weekends as many as 15 or 20, disgorging day trippers from Dublin, Sligo and elsewhere into the nearby Victoria Square centre.

Cross-border shopping is certainly big news for Northern Ireland’s retailers but small businesses are finding it difficult to cash in on the influx of southern shoppers. ‘I’ve not seen any significant increase in my southern trade,’ said Alister Beverley, proprietor of Yoke, a small designer label clothing store on the opposite side of Donegall Square from Victoria Square. ‘Everyone thinks we’re doing great up here on the back of it but the truth is that most of the trade goes straight into the Victoria Square and Castlecourt.’

According to figures released recently by the Central Statistics Office, shoppers from the Republic spent about 435 million euro in Northern Ireland in the 12 months to July. Cross-border shopping is thought to have cost upwards on 11,000 jobs in the Irish Republic, but, according to Beverley, it is multinational chains that are really benefiting from the drift of shoppers northward.

‘It’s the High Street stores that are doing well. The irony is that the money (southern shoppers) are spending isn’t really staying in the north – it’s mostly going across the water (to Britain). Obviously it’s creating some jobs here but the money is leaving the country so it’s not really helping the economy in the long-term.’

The weak pound has been one of the main factors motivating Irish shoppers to cross the border, but Beverley believes that the conversion rate might be harming small retailers in the north more than it is helping them.

‘Most of the brands that I sell are bought in euros so I can’t really sell them any cheaper than I can in euros. Anything that is sourced within this country, retailers will be better off with but for anything that is paid for in euros or dollars or from the Far East you’re losing out. For me the whole thing has been a pain – I wish it had never happened. Due to the euro rate my prices have gone up 10%. The sooner it goes back to normal the better,’ Beverley said.

Around the corner in the Bureau, a trendy men’s clothing shop housed in a former Presbyterian Dining Hall on Howard Street, co-owners Paul Craig and Michael Hamilton agree that smaller retailers have not benefited from cross-border trade to the same extent as high street stores and shopping centres.

‘The number of southern customers coming through our doors has increased but not massively. I would have expected to have more, to be honest. As it is, the percentage of our custom that comes from the south is so small that it barely registers,’ commented Craig.

Throughout the 1980s Belfast was popular with Irish shoppers, mainly due to its wide selection of UK high street stores, but during the1990s significant amounts of local trade was lost to Dublin. Hamilton believes Belfast is only now making up for lost ground. ‘For 15 years there was no need for southern shoppers to come to Belfast. And during the boom times lots of northern trade went south too, mainly because sterling was so strong – 1.4, 1.5 to the euro. It’s only in the last two years that the situation has reversed and we’re seeing more shoppers come north,’ he explained.

Last week’s budget attempted to stem the exodus of Irish shoppers north, reducing Vat and slashing duty on alcohol, but David Fitzsimons, chief executive of Retail Excellence Ireland believes more needs to be done. ‘While the drivers for customers going north are primarily food and alcohol, a lot of supplementary items are being purchased,’ he remarked.

Fitzsimons calls for reductions in rent and wages, to allow retailers in Ireland to match their counterparts across the border. ‘There’s massive money going out of the economy to the north. Irish retailers have been priced out of the market by the government. We are uncompetitive and until something is done to tackle this the problems will remain,’ he said before adding that expected Vat increases and new minimum pricing on alcohol in the UK should see a contraction in cross-border shopping in 2010.

In Newry, closer to the Irish border, John Kehoe, Marketing Manager of Kehoe Kars, feels that perception that all of Northern Ireland is profiting from cross-border trade is misplaced. ‘There is a misconception that the private retailers are getting all this business but they are not. Customers from the south are driving in the Dublin Road and turning into the two shopping centres [Buttercrane and the Quay’s], they’re not coming up into the town,’ Kehoe said from his forecourt on the Old Warrenpoint Road. ’Twenty years ago when we had busloads of people coming up from the south it was the private retailers that benefited but now it is the multinationals.’

While Kehoe accepts that the motor industry in the north has seen cross-border business grow he has little sympathy for traders on the opposite side of the border. ‘Southern retailers might complain about the loss of business but we have been in the same position ourselves for the last 10 years. All it takes is a fall in the euro rate for everything to flip around again,’ he commented.

Recently, many auto traders along the border have targeted their business model directly at customers in the neighbouring jurisdiction. With new cars registered in the Irish Republic and satellite dealers in the south buying and selling used vehicles it has never been as easy for customers in the south to buy cars in the north. Nevertheless, John Kehoe maintains that cross-border trade is ‘a bonus’ that cannot be relied upon as a long-term engine for business growth. ‘Our bread and butter is trying to retail here in Northern Ireland. That is what we are focused primarily on, and it is a difficult task because there’s a recession on here too and we have had large-scale redundancies too.’

Boucher Road, on the southern outskirts of Belfast, is home to many of Northern Ireland’s main car dealerships. Here, too, cross-border trade is up but retailers believe that it is currency considerations that will ultimately dictate whether southern customers decide to head north.

‘I suspect that while there is still value in the pocket there will be people coming north,’ said Peter Gordon, Sales Manager of Charles Hurst. ‘The strength of the euro has been the big draw in terms of bringing people across the border, and while that is still the case I would expect our cross-border trade to hold up. If that changes then we are likely to see a change.’

Southern Shoppers Making a Night of It
Last year record numbers of visitors stayed overnight in Belfast, among them many southern shoppers. The five-star Merchant Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the Victoria Square shopping centre in the heart of the bustling Cathedral Quarter, is proving particularly popular with Irish shoppers. ‘We have seen a huge increase in our southern customers, both during the week and at the weekend,’ said Lisa Scott, the Merchant’s Sales Manager. ‘Sometimes up to 50% of our business at the weekend is from the south, particularly from Dublin and from the west coast, Donegal and Sligo.’

Scott credits the marked improved the political situation in Northern Ireland over the last decade as one reason why shoppers from the Irish Republic are choosing to spend a night or two in the city. ‘Belfast is a much safer place to come to now. It’s an unexplored place that many people in the south have never been to and they want to come and see. It’s a new experience for them,’ she commented.

The Merchant has long been a popular corporate hotel, but Scott has noticed a change among business customers from the south. ‘A lot of people are looking to negotiate much harder with corporate rates. We get a lot of people from the Republic trying to bargain, saying “We can get this in Dublin for 80 euro a night, will you match that?”, but thankfully we are in a position where we don’t need to bargain.’