The ongoing flag row is threatening to inflict long-lasting damage to Northern Ireland’s already struggling retailers, a powerful industry voice has warned.
The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) has called for an urgent review of “how we can project the positive face of Northern Ireland to the world” as it revealed an unexpected rise in shopper numbers last December.
According to NIRC statistics released on Monday, footfall across Northern Ireland was 0.6% higher in December than it had been during the same month the year before.
This has bucked the UK trend which saw a 1.2% dip between December 2011 and last month. The NIRC report into shopper levels also showed a 2.6% rise between November and December.
The figures look at Northern Ireland as a whole, however, and therefore do not account for the difficult trading conditions seen by Belfast retailers because of flag protests and a now weekly march at Belfast City Hall on Saturday afternoons.
Despite the overall positive news, director of the NIRC, Aodhan Connolly, said the figures should have been much better.
“This small increase in footfall is a baby step, not a major stride, and it could have been so much better,” he said.
“The continuing violence in Northern Ireland is undoubtedly impacting on footfall and sales, and we also have stark evidence from members that the protests are affecting deliveries to stores and customers.
“More importantly, every day that it goes on it sends the wrong signals about the country as a place to invest and do business, both compared against the rest of the UK and on the global stage.
“We urgently need to review how we can project the positive face of Northern Ireland to the rest of the world. The real damage will not be felt now, but when companies are choosing where to invest for the future,” he added.
Mr Connolly’s remarks echo those that dozens of politicians, traders and celebrities made as part of the Belfast Telegraph's We're Backing Belfast campaign, which we launched on Friday.
Everyone from Prime Minister David Cameron to First Minister Peter Robinson offered their support to the campaign that is urging people to vote with their feet. We're urging people to come back to Belfast, spend as much money in our shops, bars and restaurants as they can and give our economy a much needed boost.
For seven weeks normal daily life has been disrupted by ongoing protests and rioting that have turned away vital custom and forced traders to watch profits plummet.
But we believe our city can bounce back and are asking people to make a point of doing something to support the local economy. Two of NI Opera’s young singers took time out from rehearsing The Flying Dutchman at the Grand Opera House to serenade shoppers at Victoria Square on Saturday afternoon to show their support for our campaign.
Sopranos Gemma Prince and Mary McCabe — along with accompanist Deborah Henry — braved freezing temperatures to sing a selection of popular opera arias and songs from the shows.
Mary, from Downpatrick, said: “It’s really important to support Belfast businesses right now, and we wanted to do something to put a smile on the faces of shoppers who had battled through the ice and snow to come into the city centre.”
Dungannon-born Gemma added: “NI Opera is based in central Belfast at the Grand Opera House, and so we feel strongly about the We’re Backing Belfast campaign. We’ll be back singing in Victoria Square in a couple of weeks, and I hope we get the same fantastic response from shoppers and businesses.”