Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Politicians back public to breathe new life into city

As councillors play catch-up with the public, the Belfast Telegraph's Backing Belfast campaign has reached critical mass, says Mairtin O Muilleoir

Not for the first time, the people were ahead of the politicians with Operation Sit-In, Take Back The City and the Belfast Telegraph-inspired Backing Belfast campaign. But we're catching up, bless us.

That was evident last Friday, when a cross-section of councillors, led by Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson, took the wraps off our own £400,000 contribution to the Backing Belfast initiative.

Though I say "our" contribution, the reality is that we're merely dipping into the hard-pressed ratepayer's pocket to fund a much-needed financial response to the economic crisis brought on by flag protests.

All of us, therefore - politician and punter (in my book there's no difference) - are in this together.

And that's a good thing, because it's only with a united Belfast that we can put the city on the front foot, while trying to provide more support to those small businesses which were hammered over Christmas by the protest blockade.

Let there be no doubt about it: Belfast city centre is the economic heart of Belfast. For Belfast to prosper, the city-centre must do well. That's why we need to get four-square behind the Belfast Telegraph campaign to Back Belfast. And the signs are that we're turning a corner.

Last Friday, the public flooded into the city centre to back the publicans, hoteliers and restaurateurs who have been bearing the brunt of the disturbances.

For the first time since the Friday shutdown protests began, the hostelries of Belfast weathered the storm. I hoisted my own shindig at one of the city's oldest pub-restaurants on Friday night, where my SDLP colleagues earlier block-booked a Friday afternoon tea.

Booking the Moviehouse online on Sunday night, to be greeted by a #BackinBelfast special offer, tells me that this campaign has reached critical mass.

But, as large and small traders alike have been proclaiming (loudly), there's a long way to go yet before our businesses - the lifeblood of the city - can say they're out of the woods.

And while the traders along the Newtownards Road have surely suffered more than anyone else, every businessperson - from Lisburn Road to Lisburn proper - has been buffeted by this flag furore.

That's certainly the case at St George's Market, that jewel in the crown of Belfast. There, traders, who have turned the once-sleepy market into an Aladdin's Cave for visitors and locals, say they need a rent rebate to make up for business lost due to illegal flag parades.

That request is up for mention at tonight's meeting of the development committee at City Hall and you can be sure councillors of all parties will give it a sympathetic ear.

But already, the council is planning to put musicians into the market this Saturday and unleash another round of marketing to assure the public that the market is a must-visit destination throughout the weekend. We can all do our bit by visiting the market's artisan producers this weekend.

Let's not be deterred from patronising our own city centre. The City Hall itself has remained open throughout the Saturday protests, curious tourists continue to enjoy the popular hall tour, while happy couples continue to tie the knot.

The lesson: life and commerce can and must go on during the protests. And, as normality returns, political leaders in the Dome of Delight are coming together to discuss how they can do more to build Belfast in a spirit of compromise and generosity.

Are we up for the challenge posed by those who wish to drag Belfast back? The fact that politicians at City Hall came together last year to endorse a £150m economic stimulus package to make Belfast better tells me that we are.

And, if we are unsure about the way forward, all we have to do is follow the people. Even for politicians, that can't be too hard.

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