Belfast Telegraph

PSNI checkpoints in Belfast: While armed police were on every corner, only foreign visitors seemed to notice

By Chris Kilpatrick

It seemed that every corner turned revealed more police. As Christmas music rang out and festive lights flickered, a group of foreign students looked bemused at the sight of police Land Rovers and heavily armed officers in the heart of Belfast on a Monday evening.

Police have already ramped up security in the capital with vehicle checkpoints and increased patrols, both by uniformed and plain clothes officers.

More than 1,000 vehicles coming in and out of the city have been stopped in the past week alone.

And in car parks, motorists have been ordered to open their vehicle's boots to ensure they are not transporting explosives.

A senior policing source told this newspaper the force was expecting dissident attempts to disrupt the busiest shopping period of the year.

While striving to ensure their presence is not overwhelming and discouraging to Christmas shoppers, it was impossible to ignore the level of police on the streets yesterday afternoon.

PSNI vehicles, marked and unmarked, patrolled the main routes and beat officers kept a watchful eye for anything untoward.

The security services are doing their utmost to prevent a repeat of terror attacks at the same time last year when despite the dissident's murderous intentions, police and Christmas revellers were fortunately unscathed.

While the sight of officers clutching automatic weapons may have been a novelty to the foreign visitors, shoppers barely batted an eyelid.

A couple visiting Belfast from Portglenone said they avoided the city during the Troubles.

But they were adamant the current threat from dissidents wouldn't put them off.

"Nobody wants to go back to that," one said.

"We are not up here very often but we didn't come at all in the past, it was too risky. You were always afraid of what you would walk into. We feel safe nowadays though."

Another woman, from Lisburn, said people must defy the terrorists.

"That's what they want, to scare people," she said. "They should leave people alone."

Another shopper said it was important to support traders hit hard by last year's disruption.

Standing yards from heavily armed police a middle-aged couple said that rather than be intimidated they felt reassured by their presence.

"It's not normal but then again this country is not normal," he said.

Pubs and restaurants were doing a busy trade as darkness fell.

And Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, said the indications are Christmas revellers are determined to enjoy the city's attractions.

"Disruption always has the potential to create a negative impact but we have seen a very early lift already," he said.

"Venues are booking out as we speak, deposits are being paid, so people are keen to come into the city. There's a positive atmosphere in the city.

"The extra measures taken by the police, by ourselves, other trade bodies helping to train people to prepare for any incident that possibly would come along will help to keep people safe."

Mr Neill said Belfast remains one of the safest cities in the world.

"No matter where you are in the world you have some potential for something to happen," he said.

"Obviously we have our own special situation. But I think in general people will come out and enjoy themselves."

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