Belfast Telegraph

Belfast flag protests: We won't stop until the flag is back

Traders fearful as loyalists plan more protests

By Claire McNeilly

Loyalists behind the on-going Union flag protests have vowed to up the ante in the coming weeks — despite having already cost the Northern Ireland economy an estimated £11m.

Demonstrations are expected to escalate this Saturday when protesters plan to march from four separate locations across Belfast to converge on the City Hall at 1pm.

The Belfast Telegraph understands that loyalists are also organising another large march from the City Hall to Stormont on January 20.

News of further planned demonstrations comes despite calls from within the loyalist community to halt the disruption which began in early December.

Veteran UDA figure Jackie McDonald has already told protesters that they are not going to win their battle to have the flag flying above City Hall 365 days a year.

However, a source close to activists in the ongoing disruption said that there are no plans to stop, adding: “The feeling hasn’t changed. When the flag goes up the protests stop.”

A security insider has told this newspaper that the cost of policing the protests has so far exceeded £3m.

Economist John Simpson has also estimated that the economy has lost £8m in weeks of protests, with retailers reporting a significant drop in trade and many shoppers turning to the internet to avoid the city centre.

That brings the potential total cost of the trouble in December to more than £11m.

A spokesman for the Parades Commission last night said that no permission had been sought for the four-pronged march this Saturday. He added: “Any unnotified parade is a matter for the police.”

Up to 2,000 demonstrators were involved in violent clashes in the run-up to Christmas, wrecking trade for local retailers by driving people away from Belfast city centre.

They stopped for almost two weeks to “enjoy family time over the holidays”, one of the organisers said.

But now they have vowed to come back onto the streets “bigger and stronger”.

Their plans have sparked concern in the retail and hospitality industry where members fear another poor period at the tills after a dismal December.

Sales had picked up significantly over the last fortnight but, if trouble flares up again, some businesses have said they may not survive.

Bob McCoubrey, owner of the Mourne Seafood Bar in Belfast and Dundrum, said the local economy cannot sustain any further disruption.

“If protesters are planning to converge on Belfast on Saturday, it’s not only bad news for retailers in the city centre but it also puts a massive question mark over Saturday evening trade as well,” Mr McCoubrey said.

“We live in a competitive world and we cannot afford this anymore.

“Northern Ireland needs to appeal to tourists, but if you were in London, Cardiff or Glasgow and thinking about a weekend away, you would certainly think twice about going to Belfast after seeing the news recently.”

Mr Simpson said that, ultimately, the cost of the recent rioting and protests will far exceed £11m.

“We’ll be paying for this for the next two to three years until we get away from being seen as an unstable destination,” he said.

“Our reputation for having reached peace and stability has been thrown into question by recent events as far as the rest of the world is concerned.”

Sources on the ground have said that a favourable decision around the permanent flying of the Union flag at the Cenotaph in the Garden of Remembrance at the City Hall may help quell tensions.

Meanwhile, more than 150 loyalists plan to descend on Dublin this month to demand that the Irish government remove the tricolour.

Victims campaigner Willie Frazer said that protesters are offended by the flag and want it removed from the Houses of the Oireachtas at Leinster House.

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