Larne traders' fears after legal high shop is burnt a for second time
Shopkeepers in Larne have spoken of fears for the future of their businesses in the wake of an arson attack on a store that sells legal highs - the second time it has been burnt out this month.
Arsonists forced the shutters up at Northern Lights before pouring petrol inside the store and setting it on fire at 1.30am on Monday.
Residents of three flats above the Dunluce Street property escaped unhurt while police and fire crews brought the blaze under control.
The shocked owner tried to give charred items a "dust off" and start selling again, but the shop has been gutted by the attack. He did not want to be named, but said he had been trading in the street for 12 years, and claimed the trouble this month is the first he has had.
The businessman described the effect of the devastating blaze as "like losing a child".
The fire left a stench of fumes in the air and inside the shop blackened with soot, while melted and fire-damaged items were dumped on the street outside.
Shortly after the forensics team left the premises on Monday, the shopkeeper once again began trading - this time from the back of the store, an area that escaped the worst of the flames.
The shop was previously targeted on May 2.
Northern Lights describes itself as a hydroponics store, selling tools to grow plants without soil. But nearby traders say its sideline in legal highs has left them uneasy.
They are reluctant to speak out over fears their businesses will be attacked.
But one trader revealed he has installed a buzzer on his shop door because of "undesirables" in the area.
John Shannon, chair of Larne Traders' Forum, has heard from worried business owners on the street.
He said: "One shopkeeper got threats. He was threatened with a screwdriver, that he'd be stabbed. Violence was used towards him, it was very nasty. Concerned is an understatement.
"Young people are coming from as far away as Omagh to visit Northern Lights.
"A bus driver told me he's transporting people down here from Belfast. They are coming here by train and bus to go to that place to get their so-called legal highs."
Mr Shannon said the substances are causing a growing problem in Larne, adding: "I think 99% of traders and people in the town want to see this shop closed, but he's not breaking any laws. Shutting Northern Lights doesn't stop young people getting this very nasty material on the internet."
It is also feared the substances are behind a rise in anti-social behaviour in the seaside town.
DUP councillor Paul Reid said: "Shop-lifting and petty crime are on the up in the town.
"Shopkeepers will tell you that people are selling things to pay for legal highs.
"Equally, I condemn any vigilante behaviour. The shopkeeper isn't breaking any law in selling these substances, but I think the name 'legal highs' is problematic.
"A lot of these substances aren't fit for human consumption, and the name conceals the damage it's doing to a lot of young people who can come in and buy this over the counter."
Legal highs hit the headlines last month after the parents of a 17-year-old boy from Newtownards claimed the substances were to blame for his death. Adam Owens was discovered lying on grass outside a house in the town's West Winds estate.
In a separate case, three people pleaded guilty to supplying a dangerous product at a shop in Belfast city centre in a groundbreaking case.
Last year Larne Borough Council began court proceedings to stop Northern Lights from selling legal highs. It is awaiting a court date.