Riots damages Belfast’s efforts to build new post-Troubles image
Political and business leaders strive to beat effects of recession and civil strife
Police clash with loyalist protestors in Belfast city centre as they attempt to block part of the route of the Anti-Internment League parade last Friday: Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Even though Belfast has struggled under the twin threats of economic recession and community tension, a great deal of good work continues at City Hall and community level, despite the black smoke from yet another street disturbance.
Saturday night witnessed the closing ceremony of the World Police and Fire Games at the redeveloped Titanic Quarter in the city’s docklands. The two-week event involved almost 7,000 competitors from 67 countries at 41 venues.
Games chairman Mike Graham commented: “The organisation and professionalism of the WPFG delivery team has been exemplary. The warmth and welcome of the many thousand volunteers has been outstanding, the support of the local people has been second to none and even the weather has been fabulous.”
Vistors to Belfast city centre cannot help but notice that there is plenty of empty retail space.
The hospitality sector is lobbying hard for a cut in the 20 per cent VAT rate and there are signs of strain everywhere.
Celebrity chef Paul Rankin closed his restaurant, Cayenne, earlier this year.
Another of the city’s bestknown restaurant owners, Michael Deane, has complained loudly that the ongoing union flag protests were doing untold damage.
Equinox, a high-end home design store near City Hall, shuts its doors for the last time at the end of this month.
Store founder Kay Gilbert said: “This is a voluntary decision we are making based on looking towards the future of retailing and trends in the sector.”
Elsewhere, businesses complain of anti-social behaviour in a city which is trying hard, with some success, to rebrand itself as a fun place with a vibrant social scene and pavement cafe-bar feel.
Out-of-town shopping centres, online retailers and city-centre malls are making life tough for the independents. The drop in disposable income is creating a perfect storm for retailers and service providers.
However, figures just released by Ulster Bank point to something of an economic upturn after years of gloom. Business activity expanded last month, reversing a trend prevalent since 2008.
Chief economist Richard Ramsey warns, however, that the tough times are far from over and it is important not to get carried away. Much work remains, both to quell unrest and to structure the local economy more in favour of the private sector.
‘A Vision for Belfast’
The city’s new Sinn Féin lord mayor, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, has set himself a grand task of doing just that.
His programme A Vision for Belfast was published two weeks ago and was well-received.
Mr Ó Muilleoir is balancing commitments to involve organisations such as the Somme Association and the Royal British Legion in improving community relations and efforts to attract investment. September 29th will be celebrated as “Belfast Day”, when the city’s diversity will be highlighted.
He leads a technology trade mission to Silicon Valley later this year and will host a business mission from New York early next year. He is also introducing “Future Belfast Fridays” – a series of engagements to boost confidence in the economy.
Glyn Roberts, head of the Northern Ireland Retail Trades Association, believes these meetings will be useful. The most recent centred on banking and the needs of small, local business. Work such as this can be undone in one evening of trouble. But for all the difficulties of the year to date, Belfast is fighting off its old image.