Booked out and buzzing - how Belfast defied the bombers
Just 24 hours after a dissident bomb exploded at a busy Belfast night spot, Ivan Little found Christmas revellers undeterred
Published 16/12/2013 | 13:00
First there was the deference for the peace-maker and then came the defiance of the peace-wreckers. And it all happened on Saturday in the same small corner of Belfast as the city paid its respects to Nelson Mandela in the afternoon before showing its contempt for the dissident republican bombers at night.
Twenty four hours after Ogliagh na Eireann had brought terror back to the city's newest entertainment hub, their bomb attack failed to keep thousands of people out of the Cathedral Quarter.
The device went off in Exchange Street West at the back of St Anne's Cathedral and it was in the church on Saturday that a memorial service was held to remember and to give thanks for the life of President Nelson Mandela whose message of peace has clearly been lost on the dissidents.
But if Belfast was running scared of the bombers on Saturday night someone forgot to tell its people.
For an arts centre and restaurants in St Anne's Square where the bomb was left and which had been evacuated 24 hours earlier were booked out and the house full signs were also up at the Ramada Encore hotel where a receptionist said: "It's crazy out there. Some people are even going to stay in Lisburn so they can have a night out in Belfast"
A number of eateries even had to turn away would-be diners who said they only wanted a table to demonstrate their support for businesses in the wake of the attack on the Square which was built as a symbol of the new Belfast, but which the terrorists had tried to drag back to the old one.
Scores of bewildered youngsters who had been due to watch Christmas shows at the new MAC theatre were caught in a real-life drama outside it.
The children were ushered to safety by anxious parents who struggled to explain why their festive outings had been abandoned.
Actors from one of the productions called Hatch – an adaptation of the ugly ducking story – had to run from the building in their make-up and costumes but on Saturday night it was on with the show and families were only too happy to get in on the action despite the obvious concerns.
Mary McGowan from south Belfast was there with her granddaughters Sara Devlin (4) and her sister Neamh (5) and their mum Maire who said: "We have lived through this before and it never stopped us. I would just be very cautious, that's all."
Her sentiments were echoed by Paula McGahey from Newtownards who brought her 14- month-old granddaughter Elsie Stirling and a large family party to see the production.
Paula said: "We've had 40 years of the Troubles and we just keeping going. Hopefully this won't last and things will settle down again."
In Hill Street from early evening there were queues to get into a number of the city's newest pubs like the Harp and the Dirty Onion and a quick check of restaurants revealed that there been few cancellations, though a number of establishments did a ring round of people who'd booked to make sure they were still coming.
In Waring Street, a dozen men dressed in red and white Father Christmas hats captured the mood of frivolity as their samba line of Santas sashayed along the pavement in search of a drink.
One of them said: "I'm not here to show my feelings about the bombers.
"It's not an act of bravery or defiance as far as I'm concerned – I'm only here to have a good time."
Others were making a point, however.
All around the Cathedral Quarter, hundreds of revellers had hit the town for their staff Christmas parties, in most cases a mix of Protestants and Catholics who work side by side and who were partying together at night.
One such group came from the Royal Victoria Hospital and an employee had even made a special journey into the Cathedral Quarter on Friday night AFTER he heard about the bomb.
"I came down to show my solidarity," said Eamon Crossey
He wasn't alone in his resolve to have a good time despite the renewed threat from the terrorists who also tried to bomb the city centre last month when their device at Victoria Square only partially exploded.
"I think what happened on Friday night was a disgrace," said Kerry Smith, from the Ardoyne area of Belfast. "And if anything it made me even more determined to come into town. I'm pregnant but it still wouldn't put me off."
Her husband Conor said: "I've lived through this all my days and I thought we were getting back to normality. It's not a major headline for us but you can see how off-putting it can be for people."
Catherine Glover, from Belfast, said: "We're here to enjoy ourselves. There's just a minority of people who are doing this but they're not going to spoil it for the majority of us. They're just trying to hijack the peace process and they won't win. Everybody is moving on"
Martin McErlean and his companion Stevie Jones, who is from Leeds but lives in Belfast, were dressed for the part in their colourful Christmas jumpers and outfits.
Martin said: "I had no problems coming out tonight. Nobody has cried off from our party"
Stevie said: "I'm not worried. We're having a great time."
The PSNI had vowed to increase security around the city centre but it wasn't particularly noticeable on Saturday night though a Landrover was parked for a time beside the spot where the bomb was planted before the dissidents telephoned a warning to a newspaper.
It wasn't on anything like the scale of the Omagh bomb in 1998 but the Belfast terrorists used the same tactic of giving the wrong location for their device.
They said it was at a hotel but it was actually around the corner. The only reasonable inference was that they wanted to hurt or even kill innocents on a Christmas night out.
The police said the bomb could have resulted in casualties if the sports bag hadn't been spotted by a member of the public.
It's understood that many people had seen the sports bag but assumed it had been discarded by someone fleeing from the confusion of the bomb scare from a nearby gymnasium in the Square.
It was only a small bomb consisting of inflammable liquid and explosives and many people who were standing nearby didn't even hear the noise of the explosion which one woman compared to the sound of a banger.
But its reverberations were felt much further afield as national TV news and radio bulletins carried the story.
Which, of course, was music to the ears of the dissidents.
Police have warned against any sense of complacency in the wake of the bomb and the absence of injuries or damage. And undoubtedly on Saturday night there was a sense that people were downplaying the seriousness of the Friday the 13th attack.
One security source said that if the bomb had been bigger and deadlier the "carry on regardless" attitude might not have been so prevalent.
On the Lisburn Road, one woman from Dungannon told me she and her friends had decided against going to the Cathedral Quarter adding: "Many people think the dissidents are amateurish. But they won't be thinking that if and when they get it right – in their eyes – and explode a major bomb. I'm not taking that risk."
On Friday night when the bomb went off, I was only a couple of hundred yards away in the Cathedral Quarter at a Christmas function attended by Belfast's movers and shakers, including police officers, business leaders and politicians.
As news spread of the explosion so, too, did the anger, especially among pub owners and restaurant owners who had suffered a major slump in trade a year earlier because of the violence associated with the loyalist flags dispute.
One of the guests was Basil McCrea, the leader of the NI21 party, who condemned the dissidents, saying their bomb was verging on the incomprehensible especially on a busy night when Belfast was full of families shopping and people attending Christmas parties.
Another guest, Glyn Roberts, of the Northern Ireland Independent Retailers Association, said: "We've got to stand up to the bombers and not let them return us to the Belfast of the 1970s and 1980s."
Certainly thousands of pounds were lost by businesses on Friday night but few party-goers went home, choosing to bring their meals with them onto the streets or to simply look for an alternative venue for their celebrations.
And on social media the fight-back continued with one of the highlights of the postings a message which said "The only bombs we want in Belfast are JagerBombs."