Loyalist protests crippling Belfast's St George's Market
Traders fear for future as shoppers steer clear of market
Cupcakes stand untouched, homemade pies stay uneaten, and only a handful of people browse the craft stalls. This is St George's Market on a Saturday morning.
Normally, this award-winning market in central Belfast is jammed with eager shoppers stocking up for the week ahead, laying in fresh local vegetables, eggs, meat and cheese, or treating themselves to a tasty lunch.
Families and friends meet to chat and listen to live music, children get their faces painted or play with young animals at the open farm stall. But today the market stands half-empty.
Since the flag protests at City Hall on Saturday lunchtimes began, with crowds of flag-waving loyalists marching into town from east Belfast and back again afterwards, many stall-holders have seen their trade freefall.
Paula Hinchcliffe, who runs The Cakery Bakery, says that she is £700 down a week, for the first three weeks of January.
“Soul-destroying. That's the only word for it,” she says. “I have worked so hard to build this up. But I can't afford to carry on like this. If this continues, I'm going to have to find another source of income, I just can't sustain losing this much. And it's not just me: some stall-holders didn't make any money at all last week. They had to go home with nothing.”
The weather and usual January lull, may not have helped.
But Hinchcliffe says: “It's nothing to do with the weather. I've been looking back at my January figures for the last three years, and it's never been as bad as this. People won't come in because they know there's going to be a protest. Last Saturday, the roads were blocked by police landrovers. If I was a shopper, I wouldn't want to come into town.
“The people who are coming into the market are buying, but it's not enough.”
Pat Dyer, who runs City Centres chocolate stall, and is chair of the National Market Traders Federation in St George's, calls the situation “terrible”.
“I want to thank the people who have come down to the market this morning. We're suffering from the fear factor. People are worried that if they come into town, they might have problems getting home again.”
Dyer has written to Belfast City Council, asking for a goodwill gesture for the beleaguered traders, such as a rent holiday.
“Some traders didn't even raise enough to pay for their stall last week,” he says.
“Sometimes it only takes a trader to lose £100 for a couple of weeks, and that's them gone.”
Jenny Kennedy, who runs the Hot Lips curry and stew stall, says that some traders are finding it harder than others: “At least the craft people can box their goods up and take them home. I can't do that, because it's all freshly-made.”
Jenny opens a pot to show steaming Irish stew.
“See — all fresh and ready to go. But no-one eats stew or curry until lunchtime, and that's when the city centre protests happen. You look out and the streets are suddenly empty, it's like something out of a film. I know one stall that's gone out of business — just given up.”
Another trader is close to tears. She says: “I don't care what flag they put up over City Hall, if I don't see another flag again, of any kind, it'll be too soon. I just want it sorted. This is wrecking us.”
Traders are doing their best to tempt people in: Jenny Kennedy has promoted her curries on Twitter, using catchy codes like Love Me Tandoor, and Pat Dyer says that there are special plans for St Valentine's Day, St Patrick's Day and Easter. But while the unrest continues, they are facing an uphill struggle.
It's the same at nearby Galley Cafe, on the Belfast Barge.
Saturday lunchtimes usually bring hungry market-goers to this unusual restaurant.
But this Saturday, there's only one diner on board.
“It's been dreadful,” says Rachel Brown. “We'd expected a January lull, but this has been really shocking. We've had people booking then cancelling because they can't get into town. Last Saturday, we had two people all afternoon. It’s the worst ever. It's just not sustainable.”
Brown, together with co-proprietor Bri Farren, have plans to encourage people back to the barge with special live music events, after the success of their popular jazz and DJ nights.
Back at St George's, Paula Hinchcliffe notes the absence of children in the market. “This place is normally packed with kids. But today the face-painter has nothing to do, she's giving away balloons.
“And you really notice the absence of tourists too. Whatever is happening here in Belfast, we're doing it to ourselves.”