While the sales are no longer solely a post-Christmas phenomenon – this year there was substantial discounting in the run up to the holiday period – the throngs on the streets today show that the Northern Ireland instinct for a bargain is still as keen as ever. That is good news for retailers who have had mixed fortunes this year.
The bad weather and the intensity of the flag protests at the beginning of 2013 led to a pretty disastrous trading period and there was continuing fluctuations in consumer spending throughout the summer and autumn. And this year it was dissident republicans as opposed to disenchanted loyalists who were trying to erase the Christmas spirit, particularly in Belfast, where several bomb attacks were launched, fortunately without causing injuries.
The resilience of local people was shown by an upsurge in business for shops, pubs and restaurants in the immediate period before Christmas. The public demonstrated that they wanted to enjoy themselves and would not be cowed by the cowards intent on causing mayhem for no other discernible reason than that they have the capability to do so.
It is important that our politicians now give impetus to the will of the public for a better future. True they have failed to reach agreement on the contentious issues of how to deal with the past, parades and flags, but it is encouraging to hear talks chairman Dr Richard Haass describe their efforts on two of the issues as truly significant.
He is still hoping for some agreement by the December 31 deadline and it seems that formulae for tackling the legacy of the past and parades could be achievable. That does not necessarily mean that the issues will be solved – if people do not want to accept the politicians' agreement then they are impossible to implement – but it will set a tone for the future. It will show that politicians with very diverse outlooks can reach compromise, an example that society at large will have to follow to end generations of division.
A year on and the problem of where and when flags can be flown and which flags can be included is still as insoluble as ever. Northern Ireland has always seen flags and emblems as very potent symbols of political allegiance and aspiration and they remain so. From the tenor of Dr Haass' remarks, it is clear that little if any movement on this issue has been achieved, never mind reaching an accommodation.
However, it is still an improvement that the matter has been put on the political agenda, rather than left simply to the volatile protests on the streets. We may only agree to differ on flags, but that is better than waving them provocatively at each other. In the meantime, it is heartening to see the streets thronged with shoppers rather than protesters. Belfast on this Boxing Day looks a lot like any other city on these islands with people looking no further ahead than the next 75% off sale sign. That surely is an encouraging sign of the normality that we all wish for every day.