Flag protests 'cost traders thousands'

Police landrovers line the city centre as a large protest takes place.

Thousands of pounds of sales are estimated to have been lost by traders over the last week due to violence and protests in response to a city council vote to restrict the flying of the Union flag.

Monday, 10 December 2012
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On Saturday, a crowd of around 2,000 marched around Belfast City Hall to demonstrate their objection to a vote taken earlier in the week, which saw the number of days when the Union flag will be flown from the building reduced to 17.

While the gates at the Christmas Market were closed for a number of hours, some shops pulled down the shutters voluntarily during the mostly peaceful protest.

It followed a week of disorder and disruption as number of loyalist flag protests were held across Northern Ireland.

Hugh Black, centre manager at Victoria Square said the centre experienced a 17% drop in footfall and sales on Saturday compared to the same time last year.

Shoppers did turn out on Sunday however, with sales up 20% on the same day last year.

"The city's retail and leisure community would be hopeful that any civic unrest and associated public disturbances will be resolved as soon as possible, however we are still confident that Belfast will continue to be the premier Christmas shopping destination in Northern Ireland this year," he said.

"November and December are traditionally the biggest months for the retail and leisure sectors, and in 2011, Victoria Square took almost a third of its annual sales (32%) in November and December.

"With two weeks remaining until Christmas and with two additional shopping days this year, we are confident that we have a busy few weeks ahead, which will round off a successful Christmas in 2012."

Stevie Haller owner of Home Restaurant in the city centre, told UTV their business was dramatically affected by the protests.

"On Saturday we would normally do about 120 people here- we didn't even do 25."

"The retail shops in town, the bars and restaurants have a right to trade coming up to Christmas, and on one of our busiest days our numbers were dramatically down."

He said the turnout cost the business around £3,500 in sales for that night.

Joe Jordan, President of Belfast Chamber of Trade & Commerce said there was an estimated 35-40% decline in trade over the last week.

"There has been a noticeable decline since Monday when the motion was tabled," he said.

"The mood on the ground is one of concern, of why the so-called custodians of Belfast city centre, that is the city councillors, had to have this tabled prior to Christmas, why could it not have been in February or March and we are very disappointed at the three parties that pushed this through."

There's no doubt that hundreds of thousands of pounds of trade were lost in Belfast city centre and to many traders in arterial routes.

Glyn Roberts, Independent Trader's Association

The impact was not just confined to the city centre as traders on the arterial routes around the city also lost out. At the Holywood Arches in east Belfast, retailers were forced to close their businesses early on the advice of the PSNI.

Glyn Roberts, President of the Independent Trader's Association said the traders there were badly hit.

He added: "Many of these traders are already struggling in the grip of a very difficult recession, so they are hoping for a good Christmas.

"The very last thing they need is the continued disruption to trade as a result of these protests. We need to see the assembly showing new leadership to solve this problem.

"I would urge the organisers of these protests to think again because the damage being done to our retail sector, our hospitality sector, in areas like this is very severe."

Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party refuted claims by PSNI that the disorder was being organised by loyalist paramilitaries.

He said PUP representatives on the ground worked closely with police and in east Belfast to try and keep things calm.

"Anybody involved in protests or challenging Sinn Féin actions, it should all be done very peacefully," he said.

"We should make sure that our message is heard loud and clear, and violence (will mean) our message will not be heard."

SDLP Belfast City Council Group Leader Cllr Tim Attwood said it is time for the council to get back to business.

Cllr Attwood said: "This has been a very difficult week for both the citizens and businesses of Belfast.

"The violent images have been clearly damaging but it is now important that Belfast City Council gets back to our real business of supporting the local economy and communities who are being negatively impacted by the economic downturn.

"The political parties must come together again and reaffirm our commitment to the agenda set out so powerfully, earlier this year, in the Belfast Investment package."