'Riots weren't part of my business plan'
The flag protests in Belfast have put many people off coming in to the city to shop and socialise, but business owners are coming up with ways to keep their doors open
The Apartment bar and restaurant has a special offer on cocktails and a stunning view of Belfast City Hall, where at lunchtime today there will be yet another protest against the council’s decision last month to restrict the number of days the Union flag flies over the building.
In fact, Stephen Magorrian, the managing director of Botanic Inns, which owns the Apartment and 11 other bars across the city, has a rallying cry for his fellow Belfast citizens who might be thinking of avoiding the city today because of the protest.
“You are going to be watching it on TV anyway; why not come in and enjoy the view? Belfast is the only city in the world where you can have a mojito with your protest – and ours are on special offer.”
This might sound glib, but Magorrian has a serious point to make about how businesses, especially those in Belfast’s hard-pressed hospitality sector, are going to survive the unrest. Shops, bars and restaurants in the city centre have been reporting a downturn of up to 50 per cent since the disruption started in early December.
The ensuing protests effectively killed Christmas for many retailers, restaurateurs and bar owners in the city. “We can’t afford to sit around and moan about how bad it is. We are not crying into our lattes; we are trying to do something,” he says.
Magorrian is at the forefront of a fightback by a community galvanised by both the threat to livelihoods and the tarnishing of their city once again by images of protesters’ petrol bombs in the international media. Many thought such incidents were consigned to the past. So far more than 100 police officers have been injured in the violence, and there have been 85 arrests.
But at a peace march last Sunday 1,500 people gathered outside City Hall to make their voices heard: five minutes of raucous cheering, whistle-blowing and clapping symbolised the usually silent majority speaking out against the disruptive actions of a minority of disaffected loyalists.
In direct opposition to the protesters’ Operation Standstill roadblocking campaign, a movement called Operation Sit-In was mounted on Twitter, encouraging local people to go out in Belfast, drink in pubs, eat in restaurants and generally support the beleaguered business community. This week a Snow Patrol song, Take Back the City, was adopted as a Twitter hashtag with the same goal. Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph launched the We’re Backing Belfast campaign with promotions to entice people back into the city.
Although there is cynicism about the efforts, which some deride as a middle-class protest and question its effectiveness, according to Magorrian, positive action is the only way forward.
“Yes, we have been damaged. Yes, our image has been tarnished. We can’t change that, but we can counterbalance it,” he says. “It’s not about pretending everything is rosy; it’s not about finding someone to blame; it’s not about criticising the protesters; it’s just about getting Belfast people back into the city. We are appealing to our fellow citizens to come and show civic pride in our town. Everything is still open. If you can’t get in through your normal route, then find an alternative.
The best of a bad job
How bad is it for Botanic Inns, which employs 600 people? “We are not going to pretend we are not hurting, but statistics about how bad it is are not the point. You don’t ask about the weather in the North Pole. You know it’s cold. What we are interested in is where we are going, how do we turn this around and how do we regenerate the momentum of the past few years? We in the hospitality business employ thousands of people who all have friends and family who will support them. We are asking for that support, for people to come in and have a great time in Belfast. That’s all we can do. The rest is up to the politicians.”
For those interested in taking the temperature of Belfast businesses the place to be was the penthouse of the Europa Hotel on Wednesday night. There was standing room only as about 200 business owners attended a meeting held by the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce to examine the economic repercussions of the unrest and explore strategies to recoup the losses.
It was a penthouse filled with pain, anger and fear. Restaurateur Eamon McCusker spoke of losing £8,500 in one day over Christmas and said he was down £80,000 overall. The owner of the educational children’s retailer Learning Space described how investors from England had withdrawn promised funding. “Flag protests and turbulence were not for them,” she said.
A Belfast bridalwear retailer spoke about the five brides from Cos Donegal, Dublin and Monaghan who had cancelled appointments in one week, a potential loss to her business of about £15,000.
An emotional Deirdre McCanny of the luxury chocolate company Co Couture, on Chicester Street near City Hall, recalled having to lock customers in the shop or let them out of the back door rather than face crowds of intimidating protesters and police in riot gear.
Munish Sharma of the Indian restaurant Archana, on Dublin Road, which was bombed seven times during the Troubles, said it was the worst downturn in trade he had experienced in 30 years.
There was criticism of politicians and police, and frustration at the road blockages that have put people off coming to the city to shop and socialise.
In east Belfast, where most of the violence of the past seven weeks has been concentrated, the impact on businesses has been felt most keenly. “Riots weren’t part of my business plan,” says Brenda Shankey, who runs a male-grooming business with her husband on Newtownards Road. Takings are down 50 per cent, and the tax bill is due; the stock they expected to sell over Christmas to pay for it is still on the shelves.
There are other, less tangible repercussions. “My two children, aged 10 and 12, have been asking me what’s the difference between Protestants and Catholics and other questions I really thought I’d never have to answer.”
Also on Newtownards Road, but closer to the scenes of violent protests, Stewart McAleese runs the Titanic Chip Shop, a well-known fast-food restaurant. It’s lunchtime, and the cafe is virtually empty. Takings are down 50 per cent, and on one of the worst days of rioting he lost £1,000. “If it stays like this I will be closing the doors in three weeks.”
This week the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, continued her tour of the worst-affected shops and restaurants in east Belfast, calling into a cafe, a window retailer and Bistro Este, a critically acclaimed restaurant that is also on Newtownards Road. It’s run by the Belfast chef David Adams and his English wife, Sarah.
Because it is next door to the office of the Alliance MP Naomi Long, protests have been held outside every day since early December – even on Christmas Day. Adams has been somewhat encouraged by initiatives such as Operation Sit-In, during which food bloggers descended on the restaurant one lunchtime to support it.
“It’s bad, but you can’t give up hope. You couldn’t work 80 hours a week over a stove if you didn’t think somehow it was going to get better. But we are worried about the future.”
As he speaks, across east Belfast loyalist community activists are handing out 5,000 leaflets seeking an end to “wanton destruction” about the flag issue, a move that many hoped might signal the beginning of the end of the violence.
In the meantime, the hospitality sector will keep fighting back. Colin Neill, the chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, says up to 300 mostly part-time jobs in his sector have already gone as a direct result of the protests. He says that while pressure must be kept on politicians to find a solution and on the banks to keep cash flowing in businesses that are at breaking point, hotels, restaurants and bars must help themselves .
Tony O’Neill, the owner and chef at Coppi restaurant on St Anne’s Square, which opened a few days before the flag protests started, agrees. Although midweek trade has been badly damaged, weekends are still busy, and there is, he says, a “blitz spirit” in Belfast at the moment. He says he wouldn’t close the doors even if the police asked him to.
“It’s up to us to keep Belfast going,” he says. “We lived through the bad days. Nobody wants to go back there. We need people to stay strong and stay open. When people call the restaurant to cancel bookings we are asking them to support us instead. The last thing we need in Belfast now is a ‘woe is me’ approach. We’ve always been resilient.”