Richard Haass hears of high financial cost of flags, parades and protests disorder
US diplomat also holds ‘extremely beneficial’ meeting with Orange Order leaders
Orange Order Grand Secretary Drew Nelson and Grand Master Robert Stevenson leave the Europa Hotel with the Reverend Alastair Smyth after conducting talks with Richard Haas. Photograph: Pacemaker
On a day when it was disclosed that Belfast city centre has lost more than £50 million in trade in the past 12 months business leaders held talks yesterday with Dr Haass and his compatriot and vice-chair of the all-party talks on parades, flags and the past Dr Meghan O’Sullivan.
Among the business groups he met were the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, the Pubs of Ulster and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association. The meetings coincided with the disclosure of a study by Belfast City Centre Management which found that city centre revenues have dropped from £577 million to £522 million.
The organisation’s chief executive Andrew Irvine said the figures have yet to be properly dissected to establish how much of this lost trade was due to the parades, protests and flags disorder but it was a factor.
Mr Irvine said there were other factors such as the general economy, traffic disruption due to new bus lanes and perceived high car parking charges. “The costs of the flags protests have yet to be analysed but obviously they did not help,” he said.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association after meeting Dr Haass said some of his members had lost between 20 per cent and 50 per cent of their income during the height of the flags protests.
He said Dr Haass had “very much got the message” that Northern Ireland could not continue to sustain such loss.
“We simply could not afford to have another summer like we had this year, or for that matter another December like we had last year, and that is very much what we want to focus on. We welcome that Dr Haass has gone out of his way to meet all the business organisations over these coming days,” he added.
In a joint statement after their meeting Mr Roberts and Colin Neill, chief executive of the Pubs of Ulster said, “Resolving issues around the past, parades, flags and identity are essential if we are to move our economy forward.”
“Divided societies are bad for business and will limit the economic potential of Northern Ireland. Economic issues need to be part of these talks and are a critical element of a shared future,” they added.
Dr Haass also met a senior delegation from the Orange Order led by its grand master Edward Stevenson. They made a preliminary submission on parading, arguing for toleration for loyal order marches, and are to meet again. Mr Stevenson said the one-hour meeting was “very cordial” and an “extremely beneficial exercise”.
The four main Christian church leaders also welcomed the initiative while Rev Dr Heather Morris led a delegation of the Methodist Church in talks with Dr Haass. “We were very happy with our meeting with Dr Haass and his team. We found him to be not only an attentive listener, he also engaged well with the items we raised. We have reassured him that the Methodist Church in Ireland will continue to be actively involved in peace building,” said Dr Morris.