There were no customers inside Ashers shop on Royal Avenue in central Belfast when, on Wednesday morning, I presented myself seeking opinions about the "gay cake" London Supreme Court judgment in favour of the bakery.
It was shortly after 10am, minutes after the court found that the bakery had not discriminated against gay rights activist Gareth Lee, whose order in 2014 for a cake with the message "support gay marriage" was initially accepted but then rejected by Ashers.
The three staff behind the counter did not want to talk, which was fair enough as that was the company policy when I sought reaction after previous court judgments in this long-running battle. They were probably sick of the sight of me, I thought.
The shop is diagonally across from the gutted remains of the Primark store and just outside the cordon. Inside the security tape all stores are closed for safety reason. There were very few people about on one of Belfast’s premier shopping thoroughfares. It was rather sad; like walking down an almost empty Grafton Street in Dublin.
I planted myself to the side of the shop with notebook and recorder. Even though Royal Avenue was quiet, there was a steady stream of customers of different ages, and from unionist and nationalist backgrounds. And all the sympathy was with Ashers, although occasionally with a little qualification.
‘Big waste of money’
Sam Clarke, who is in his early 30s, runs a picture-framing business nearby that is feeling the pinch because of the lack of customer footfall. He had heard the legal costs would be about £350,000 (€400,000). “For 350 grand I think it is a big waste of money and I could have used it a lot better,” he said. Costs are actually expected to be in the region of £550,000 (€600,000).
Holding his sausage and bacon roll smothered in red sauce, he said he felt that people should be able to put any message they wanted on a cake. But then again, he said, if Ashers “believe it is against their beliefs then I wouldn’t want to force someone to do something against their beliefs”.
And he added: “Me personally, if I wanted to get a cake made and the business did not want to do it, it would not bother me. I would go somewhere else that would be more happy to do it. There should be more live and let live from both sides.”
Chris and Linda Killen from Lisburn went into the shop for a sausage roll. They know the McArthur family who own Ashers. “Today has been the right judgment,” said Mr Killen. “At the end of the day it was exactly what they stated: they had no problem with the man, it had to do with the message. If you knew the family, you would know they are not discriminatory people, they are nice people.”
Peter Morgan, a middle-aged man from a nationalist background, said he was “delighted” with the result. He felt taking such legal cases against the company was “an infringement of the human rights” of the McArthur family. “It would be like a loyalist band going to a baker on the Falls Road and asking for a loyalist emblem on the cake,” he said.
‘Live and let live’
He thought too that the managing director, Daniel McArthur, and his wife Amy had conducted themselves with great dignity. “They did not come across as if they had anything against anybody. They had an attitude of live and let live, and I was glad to see that they pushed it to the limit and won the case.”
Then the police arrived. Here I must stress that was my fault, because I had not properly explained when I went into the shop that I was a reporter.
After I explained my position and the police departed, a smiling member of staff came out. “Are you trying to get me arrested?” I asked. “No, we’re not,” she laughed. “We didn’t know you were a journalist.”
She explained that as soon as the judgment was announced, a stream of “abusive” phone calls started coming in that staff had to field, and she thought I might have had sinister intentions.
Just as with the PSNI officers, we parted amicably. I then spoke to a few more customers leaving Ashers and again the prevailing view was that the case against Ashers demonstrated a lack of common sense.
“It was splashed all over the news, and over a cake – that’s the bit that I can’t understand, for a small cake, it’s just not right,” said Elizabeth from the Antrim Road.
Another middle-aged woman who did not wish to divulge her name said she was a Christian although her views “may not be in parallel” with the evangelical opinions of the McArthurs. On balance she felt the judgment was correct. “Conscience still has to have a place in society, conscience has to be respected,” she said.