Belfast peaceline shop loved by locals faces being shut down by bureaucrats
When William Haire opened a convenience store in a steel shipping container on a north Belfast interface, little did he think his battles would be over planning permission, health and safety... and hen poo. But now, nine years on, time may finally be running out for Sina's, the little shop on the corner. Fionola Meredith reports.
A shop in a shipping container on a former bonfire site in north Belfast - it doesn't sound very promising, does it? But if you thought that you'd be wrong, because Sina's cornershop and cafe is a bright outpost of hope and good cheer in a bleak part of the city.
Surrounded by waste land, walled-up windows and other grim signs of dereliction, Sina's sits jauntily on the corner in defiance of the rot.
Open from dawn until well into the evening, it's a friendly spot to stop for a coffee, cigarettes, a newspaper or any of the other random bits and pieces you suddenly find you need. There's even a posse of free range hens out the back, providing fresh eggs for customers.
Established in 2008, Sina's has had to face a long battle just to survive.
Bureaucrats seemed determined to shut the innovative enterprise down. But the brave little shop is still here, clinging on to life.
And its presence on the boundary between largely Protestant Skegoneill and mainly Catholic Glandore has had a transformative effect.
The area has seen its share of trouble and street disorder in the past: for instance, during the Drumcree stand-off several Catholic families living near the interface fled their homes.
But simply by being there, constantly and without fanfare, as a place for people of both communities to call in and pass the time of day, Sina's has made a big difference.
The junction is now no longer deemed an interface. According to the Belfast Interface Project, it is instead considered a "blighted space".
That might not sound like much of an improvement - and the immediate environs are indeed fairly blighted - but Sina's should be given credit for achieving something quietly remarkable. And it's all done for love, not money.
Not that any words of official praise or recognition are forthcoming. Since he opened the doors, original owner William Haire has encountered near-constant opposition from officialdom.
"We have never received a penny from anyone," he said.
"And yet all the authorities have fought with us - the planners, the courts, the council, health and safety - you name it."
Haire is a man who is refreshingly untroubled by rules and strictures. What he does have is imagination, vision and a humane, ironic and generous approach to life.
He bought the bonfire site at auction for £8,500 in 2006.
Later he was offered £300,000 by a property developer for the land, but he turned it down.
"I don't care about the money," he said.
At that point the site was still piled high with bonfire material and other junk - upended shopping trolleys, half a wardrobe, a double mattress.
A photograph from the time shows Haire sitting amid the chaos on a cushion-less sofa, wondering what he had taken on. He was prepared for hell, he said. Graffiti, hassle, all sorts of trouble.
But it never happened. People took the little shop to their hearts.
It was the authorities which seemed hell-bent on causing difficulties. The first foray came from the planners.
In 2010 Haire was given until Christmas to shut and dismantle Sina's on the grounds that the appearance of the shop was "inappropriate" to its location and because it had an "adverse impact on the character of the surrounding area".
Had the planners actually taken a look at the surrounding area - the roofless houses, the boarded-up windows, the general air of long-term neglect?
Belfast architect Mark Hackett, speaking at the time, was incredulous about the planners' damning verdict on the shop.
"No one intervened as a number of good, three-storey terraced houses in the area were vacated and knocked down," he said.
"Rather than Government agencies stepping in and taking action to protect the high-quality Victorian fabric, they let it disappear. So what's the point in talking about the context of the surrounding area now, when that context has already been knocked down?"
Haire also fell foul of health and safety officials at Belfast City Council, who were unhappy about him using a ladder to get access to his storage space - a second shipping container, which was originally placed on top of the one housing the shop.
"They gave me 24 hours to stop using the ladder and they gave me the whole 'you have the right to remain silent' stuff," recalled Haire. "One week before we went to court, I moved the container and put it at the side of the shop."
On another occasion questions were raised about the hens. "We had the food people out from the council, they said they'd got reports of a chicken in the shop," said Haire. "I asked them: 'What's the difference between having a dog in the shop, or a chicken in the shop? What about farm shops?'
"So, we had this whole discussion about the difference between dog poo and hen poo. It ended with them saying they would swab the floor of the shop for signs of chicken poo.
"Honestly, they must have thought they were working for CSI or something."
Haire wasn't fazed by any of this. "Ah, I love fighting with them," he laughed. "It's magnificent, and I never panic about anything."
One of the most striking things about Sina's - apart from the 20ftx8ft prefabricated steel shipping container housing - is the lovely mahogany-lined interior.
Everything in the shop has been carefully designed to fit perfectly within the tiny space and the entire front face of is glass, making the interior bright on even the dullest winter day. Outside, there are a few tables and chairs for sunny days and a colourful display of primulas planted beside the door. The urban chickens are truly free-range, regularly roaming up and down Skegoneill and Glandore Avenues.
Current owner Lucinda Pollin - the original 'Sina' of the shop's name - calls them home by whistling for them.
For a while there was even a rooster, but he had to go after waking all the neighbours up at five o'clock every morning with his exuberant cock-a-doodle-doo.
Sina keeps her camera handy and often takes a snap of her customers, displaying the photographs on a digital photo frame on the wall. It shows an ever-changing succession of smiling faces, from the youngest to the oldest residents, adding another layer of warmth to the already cosy shop.
Whether Sina's will be here next year depends - as ever - on the actions of the authorities. After a four-year-long battle with the planners, Haire was eventually given temporary leave to keep the shop on the site for five years.
But the deadline for its destruction expires this summer, so William, Sina and the hens are on borrowed time.
Will it be a triumph for bureaucracy, with a blighted area deprived of its one bright spot?
Or will it be a victory for hope, imagination and enterprise?
"At one point I was told I would have to pay £20,000 or £30,000 if I didn't take the shop off the site," says Haire.
"So I told them I'd build a bonfire around it and set fire to it."
He added: "Maybe that will still be how it ends."