Flag protests cost Belfast firms £15m
The ongoing flag protests in Belfast have cost the local economy at least £15 million (€17.7 million), further undermining a retail sector struggling to survive its darkest period in which one in four premises now lie empty, an Oireachtas committee was told today.
Masked protests, attacks on police officers and scattered road blocks are eroding consumer confidence and discouraging shoppers, the city’s retail body warned.
The situation has accelerated an economic decline in the city which, long before the recent trouble broke out, had seen some 2,000 commercial premises close. Jobs losses are now one legacy of the conflict and, with little sign of a thaw in tensions, more are expected to follow.
So far the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has spent at least £7 million in an effort to control the demonstrations, sparked by a controversial decision to limit the flying the unionist flag at City Hall.
“What we have to do is get this problem off the streets; the political parties need to all sit down and resolve this issue,” said Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA).
He was addressing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement today.
Last year was one of the worst in history for city retailers, he pointed out, and last Christmas’s expected reprieve of a commercial “harvest” was deflated by hostilities.
“It is crucial for us to comment on the damage being done to Belfast and a number of other towns in the north,” said Mr Roberts.
One publican alone estimated he had lost around £95,000 over the Christmas period and a further £66,000 in the subsequent weeks.
International media coverage has given the impression of a peaceful city returning to an uglier, violent past, doing considerable damage to the region, a particular concern for investors, he explained.
“We believe that the protests, the violence and the illegal blocking of roads should end immediately. Above all, let’s take this problem off the streets.
“Many of our traders are on their knees and will not last much longer.”
In response the trade association is to launch a £500,000 marketing campaign entitled 'BackinBelfast', aimed at attracting consumers with various offers and events and which will be bolstered by a social media campaign.