'My big concern is that Brand Northern Ireland is going to be put back 10 years'
Michael Deane, who owns Deanes in Belfast: "We were doing absolutely thumping good business up until then."
IRISH LIVES:You can hear the frustration in his voice when speaking to Belfast restaurateur Michael Deane. We’re in Deanes, his main city centre restaurant just a 100 yards or so from Belfast City Hall where the flag controversy started on December 3rd last.
“We were doing absolutely thumping good business up until then. That’s the reason we’ve been hanging on all those years. Then all of a sudden – bang! Stop! And all because of the Orange and the Green.”
The “bang! stop!” refers to the two months of disruption, disorder, upended business and tarnishing of Belfast’s image caused by the flags protests. Yet while the street action continues, albeit on a smaller scale, a commercial fightback is gaining traction. Deane is one of scores of business people who have put considerable faith in the new Backin’ Belfast campaign.
First though, let us recall that Monday December 3rd was the night of the decision that the British union flag should fly at City Hall only on 15 to 18 designated days, rather than all year round, as had been the case. That’s cost Deanes a Christmas “downturn of 20-30 grand a week”, says Deane, a local boy from Dunmurry, which is halfway between Belfast and Lisburn. It’s a financial hit that was replicated in many other Belfast stores, hotels, restaurants and pubs.
It’s noon and he has taken some time out from preparing lunches at his restaurant on Howard Street, and at the seafood bar that adjoins it, to vent his frustration.
Deane had to forgo the Michelin star he held for 14 years after a flood at his restaurant forced its closure for several months in 2010. He still provides top-notch fare, which explains why he shakes his head at the low prices he offers. But it’s all part of the concerted effort to get the city’s heartbeat pumping again. “My big concern is that Brand Northern Ireland across the globe is going to be put back 10 years in the space of these past few weeks,” he says.
After all the years of the Troubles and the peace process and getting Northern Ireland and Belfast back on track, it angers him that so much good work could be undone over a flag. As he says, achieving normality was what business people had been striving for for so long.
Last summer was one of his best seasons ever – largely thanks to Belfast showing a bright new face with its Titanic visitor centre and other attractions. That positive level of trade continued up to Christmas when Deane and all the other city pubs, hotels and restaurants were expecting a lucrative holiday season.
Deane says the vote on the flag was crazy and wrong. “December 3rd was when the whole town nearly fell down around us.”
He fears for others too. When the VAT, rent and tax demands start falling through letter boxes in the months ahead, and “when the banks start leaning on people”, then there will be businesses that “will not come through”, he warns.
Deane, who learned his trade as a chef in Claridges and the Dorchester in London, returned to the North 20 years ago and now employs 140 people. He has the seafood bar and restaurant at Howard Street, a deli about 100 yards away on Bedford Street, a brasserie, Deanes at Queens, close to the university, and Simply Deanes at the Outlet retail park in Banbridge, Co Down.
It took him hard work and graft to build up the operation.
Deane speaks glowingly about John Keane, who runs the Ardmore PR company and who with support from Belfast City Council and the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau has masterminded the Backin’ Belfast campaign. “I would have him sitting at Stormont. He is a bit of a Seb Coe type figure.”
Backin’ Belfast revolves around advertising and special deals and a civic call to the people of Belfast and beyond to “back” the city by coming “back in” to Belfast. More than 200 business people have signed up. Local newspapers are supportive while there is a huge push on Twitter urging people back to return to the city. Many people have responded positively and bookings are strong, although no one knows what might happen next.