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Flags unrest 'decimating' businesses

Businesses have been hit hard as fewer shoppers come into city centre.

Seven weeks on from the beginning of the flag demonstrations, UTV looks at the full cost of the violence on everyday business life in Belfast.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013
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Traders in the city say the protests and riots arising out of changes to City Hall's flag policy have had a devastating effect on trade.

According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), an estimated £15m was lost to the economy over Christmas because shoppers avoided Belfast.

It has also now emerged that the cost of police overtime in December was up almost £3m compared to the same time last year.

Peter Gilroy, who runs Restaurant Victoria, said levels of business in the past week were some of the lowest he has ever seen.

"These protests have decimated - and I can't repeat that word enough - decimated our business," Mr Gilroy told UTV.

Last week was just short of the worst I've seen in 20 years in this industry

Peter Gilroy, Restaurant Victoria

"We expect a quiet January but not this. What I think we need to highlight is the effect it's having on personnel working in the hospitality industry.

"Waiters that are used to getting 40 to 50 hours a week last week would have got 10 - how are they going to live, pay their rents?"

Jason Shankey, who runs his business on the Newtownards Road, said the shop is left empty every time trouble flares.

"The knock-on effect is immediately when the riots erupt the road here just dies completely and as a result of that a lot of customers aren't able to get to our premises," he explained.

"The shop just becomes empty. A lot of our customers travel a long distance to come here so they are unable to make their way to the shop."

Pub owners have also been hit hard, with trade down by as much as 54% and one publican claiming losses of £60,000 since the protests began.

During a meeting with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers on Monday they described the current situation as "critical".

Meanwhile it has been announced that a major education conference which was due to take place in Belfast has been postponed as the fallout continues.

The Girls' Schools Association, which represents the heads of 177 independent UK girls' schools, had planned to hold its annual conference in the city this November.

It typically attracts in the region of 200 delegates plus exhibitors, but organisers said they have now postponed their visit to Belfast due to a risk that members may not come.

Charlotte Vere, executive director of the GSA, said: "We are very sad that we have had to postpone our visit to Belfast and we really hope that we can visit in the future.

"The reality is that we just can't take the risk of a significant proportion of our members deciding to stay at home."

It would hit us hard financially and that is not a risk that we can prudently take

Charlotte Vere, GSA

The decision to reduce the number of days the Union flag flies at City Hall has led to protests across Belfast and Northern Ireland since December.

Belfast Lord Mayor, Gavin Robinson, promised action after holding an emergency meeting with retailers, representatives of the hospitality industry, business organisations and local traders on Tuesday.

He said: "It was an opportunity for those present to vent not only their frustrations and fears but perhaps more importantly come up with ideas and initiatives to deal with the problem.

"The council is giving this matter some urgency and will consider all the issues that were discussed and come up with a joint plan of action to encourage people who work in the city centre to stay beyond work time and for others to come into the city and support our bars, restaurants and shops, while also supporting the retailers in their own localities."

Last week Belfast City Council agreed a rates freeze to help traders affected by the flags trouble.

A motion to cut rates by 2% was put forward by the DUP but was defeated by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

An urgent crisis meeting with city retailers has been called by the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce to discuss ongoing disruption caused by flag protests.

Chamber President Joe Jordan said the meeting, which will be held on Wednesday, will discuss the downturn in trade and the "continuing hardship on the business community".