'Riots weren't part of my business plan'
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 The owner of the educational children’s retailer Learning Space described how investors from England had withdrawn promised funding.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.”