Onward and upward despite tough trading times
Publican Seán Murray returned to Northern Ireland in the wake of the Belfast Agreement determined to make a life in the city for his family after a career in the five-star hotel industry which took him all over the world.
He has a leasehold on two pubs in the city centre, the Deer’s Head, a listed Georgian building in a rundown part of town and The Fountain off buzzing Royal Avenue, which came as a package when he bought them five years ago.
It’s been a tough couple of years for businesses in Belfast with more and more retailers closing, their premises taken over by charity and pound shops. People talk of gym and golf memberships being cancelled; conversely, a chain of cut-price hair salons is doing a roaring trade. While acknowledging all this, Murray says he’s seen a slight upturn in business on this time last year and an increase in credit card usage at his bars. He sees these as signs, however small, that consumer confidence may be returning.
Moreover, he’s confident. Just a few months ago he bought another pub and refurbished it in six weeks. On this damp and cold week night it’s packed full of families with small children.
The Crooked Mile is located in the middle of a winding mile of road between west Belfast and Lisburn. The changes Murray has wrought in what was formerly The Farmer’s Inn tell a little bit of the story of how Belfast has changed in recent years. Just like in his other bars football jerseys are banned, although with his training at the likes of the Ritz in London Murray is not averse to offering alternative clothing to those arriving in football colours.
“When I came it was full of old Irish signs but I decided to give it more of a neutral touch with some lovely old Belfast photographs. I just can’t afford to let religion or politics impact on the business . . . I’ve created a place where I hope everyone can feel welcome.”
A warmer welcome has been top of the agenda in Belfast for a while with more than a billion invested in the tourism sector. The figures tell their own story. In 1999 the city welcomed about 400,000 visitors and two overnight cruise ships. Last year the city had 1.6 million overnight visitors while this year, so far, about 50 cruise ships have dropped anchor. Chief executive of the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau Gerry Lennon mentions the Titanic Centre, the city’s hosting of European Music Awards, the opening of the Belfast MAC and the newly refurbished Ulster Hall as reasons why the city is welcoming bigger numbers. This year the bureau’s welcome centre recorded an increase in inquiries, up 32 per cent up on last year.
The city is also attracting increasingly large international conferences and functions. The World Police and Fire Games will take place in August next year which means about 8,000 to 10,000 athletes staying in Belfast. Moreover, high-end shopping at Victoria Square, stylish hotels like the Fitzwilliam, vibrant nightlife and new additions to the cityscape and you have a city more tourists are choosing to visit.
Despite all the positivity, residents are quick to say that the bad old days are not entirely behind Belfast. It still doesn’t take much for trouble to flare up. There is concern about the effect the Twelfth fortnight in July has on trade. Provocative marches around St Patrick’s Church commemorating the Ulster Covenant were another cause for alarm recently.
And for Seán Kelly, director of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, two recent events in particular compounded his view that Belfast politics is still informed by a deeply held conservatism. Controversy surrounding the newly opened Marie Stopes clinic and the defeat of the motion on same-sex marriage were events that “left our politicians fairly wanting . . . the mainstream parties didn’t want to touch either issue”. For Kelly, the reaction of politicians to these kinds of issues are a barometer of how far the city still has to go.
Joris Minne, PR consultant and restaurant reviewer for the Belfast Telegraph, agrees.
“From what I see the politicians are more and more out of step with ordinary people who have a lot more savvy than the people in charge . . . I think Belfast City Council are an exception to this. They’ve just embarked on an . . . investment programme in the city without raising the rates by a penny.”
Minne lived away from the city from the late 1970s to the early 1990s but now says that despite small “pockets of toxicity”, when it comes to raising children and enjoying a decent quality of life “Belfast is hard to beat”.
“Are we the finished article?” asks Gerry Lennon, pondering the future of the city. “Absolutely not. But we have moved on significantly and the trick is to make tourism, this new wealth generator and job generator, to make it a more attractive product . . . we need to come up with new reasons for them to visit. The Titanic centre . . . is a marketer’s dream so we need more of that kind of thing. We’re working on it. Our message is that there’s never been a better time to visit Belfast.”