Belfast Telegraph

Obey law, Belfast traders urge flag protesters

By Clare Weir and Margaret Canning

Belfast traders have appealed for flag protesters to abide by Parades Commission rulings – and have invited out-of-town shoppers into the city centre over the festive season.

Earlier this week the commission approved a loyalist parade in Belfast city centre on Saturday, November 30, just days before the first anniversary of Belfast City Council's decision to restrict flying of the Union flag from the City Hall to designated days only.

The commission has ruled that the parade, which could comprise 10,000 people and 40 bands, should be finished at City Hall by noon, and should be clear of the junction of North Street and Royal Avenue junction by 12.30pm.

Last year's protests over the decision in December 2012 to restrict flying the flag – some of which descended into civil unrest – were blamed for traffic chaos and massively reduced footfall in Belfast city centre shops.

Earlier this year business representatives claimed that the flag protests contributed to Belfast shops losing up to £50m.

Figures in a report for Belfast City Centre Management said that revenues fell from £577m to £522m in the year to July 2013.

One taxi company owner said that his business was badly impacted by the protests last year.

ValueCabs owner Christopher McCausland said that business was down at the end of 2012 and the start of 2013.

"The market changes as per the time of day, and a lot of people decided to come out earlier, but overall, the night-time economy was very poor," he said.

"Night-time trade was affected. It continued into January but things did begin to improve with the Backin' Belfast campaign, which was a great effort by Belfast City Council and Visit Belfast.

"Tourism has been better this year.

"My hope for November 30 is that the parade goes smoothly and that it moves off as per the Parades Commission directive."

He said the city was busier because more Belfast residents were coming in to dine out, for example, as there were many new restaurants to choose from.

There was more confidence overall, he said.

A total of 11 new restaurants had opened in November alone, he added.

And Gordon McElroy, of city centre solicitors MKB Law, said he had negotiated with international property developers around the time of last year's protests, who were put off investing in the city.

He said: "All it takes is for them to see a riot and they'll put their money into a project in Sydney or North America, where they think it's safer."

Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce president Paul McMahon, director of Belfast's CastleCourt shopping complex, has appealed for protesters to abide by the determination. He said: "Success for us as retailers would be for people to comply with the rulings, that there will be no trouble and that there is a perception to shoppers and the public that the city is open for business.

"The Backin' Belfast campaign was very useful, particularly for the restaurant and pub trade, and helped show people that there was a much more positive side to the city."

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