Traders in Belfast yesterday described what should have been one of their busiest days of the year as a “disaster”.
Following three weeks of protests and heightened tension, beleaguered businesses in the city had been hoping for a reprieve over the weekend.
But while many shoppers on Royal Avenue were making their way home laden with bags, frustrated traders told of disappointing takings as they closed their shutters.
And they were universal when pointing the finger of blame for yet another day’s poor trade.
“Disaster,” said an owner of a city centre cafe.
“The protests have ruined Christmas. It’s a total joke.
“I’ve been speaking to those in other businesses and they are all saying the same. People are in despair.”
A member of staff at a gift shop said that while they had a constant stream of customers it was “no busier than any normal day of the week”.
“People are staying away. We thought we might be busy with people getting last minute presents but it wasn’t the case.”
He said he had been working at an out-of-town retail park earlier in the week which had been thronged with customers.
“I think people are scared to come into the city so they’re going to shopping centres and malls instead,” he added.
A worker at a leading clothing chain described yesterday as “quiet”.
“Last year people were queued right back but while there have been a few people about it’s nowhere near as busy.”
Gary Wilson, (42), from Antrim, said he had been put off from shopping in Belfast in recent weeks.
“It just wasn’t worth the hassle,” he said.
Traders had been buoyed by a busy Friday night. Shoppers defied protesters by turning out in their droves and packing out stores, pubs, restaurants and clubs, which had given business owners optimism.
With the recession already putting a major strain on many here, there had still been some optimism for a busy festive season.
However, the past three weeks have had a disastrous effect, with the disruption caused by the protests resulting in millions of pounds being lost.
Stallholders at the Christmas Market were last night packing away and preparing to head home, three days later than scheduled.
Managing director of Marketplace Europe Alan Hartwell said the last few weeks for the Christmas market have been “very challenging” but that it will return.
“We've had a great trade through the day up to five and six o'clock, but then we've lost all the evening economy,” he said.
“But the first two weeks were the best we ever had, all the traders were extremely happy. I think all the traders will come back,” he added.
Story so far
Loyalist protests began three weeks ago after Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union flag only on designated days at the City Hall. Violence has flared and an attempt was made to murder a female police officer. A number of politicians have received death threats and the homes and offices of several Alliance party members have also been targeted. Businesses in Belfast have seen pre-Christmas trade dip because of the protests.