'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.