Belfast Telegraph

Wetherspoon boss warns instability could put off businesses

By John Mulgrew

JD Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin has said his Northern Ireland pubs had "virtually a record year", while warning that the ongoing political instability here could put off new businesses.

The Northern Ireland-raised bar chain founder told the Belfast Telegraph that his concerns over the introduction of a so-called 'living wage' will not impede its plans for expansion here.

He's in the process of opening two new bars in Belfast. The company currently operates nine across Northern Ireland.

The two new bars will be at a former JJB Sports store on Royal Avenue, and a former Methodist church close to Queen's University.

Mr Martin launched a fresh attack on ministers last week over living wage and tax policies, as the pub company reported a 25% drop in profits.

"I think it's good to have a debate about the economics of the big increase in the minimum wage and the wider impact, and I prefer it in the economic arena, rather than a political football which it is now," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

But he said the proposed increase in pay - which will see over-25s paid at least £7.20 an hour - won't affect its expansion in Northern Ireland.

"It won't affect big projects in central Belfast," he said.

"The pub industry as a whole - it will push up the price of a pint or a meal in the pub, relative to supermarkets, which is a bad thing.

"Labour-intensive businesses like pubs or restaurants, or others, are very important for the economy.

"My own view is that the major impact will be in small towns and less affluent areas."

JD Wetherspoon employs nearly 35,000 people across close to 1,000 pubs, including Lloyds No 1 bars in Great Britain.

And on the issue of a slump in profits across the company, Mr Martin said that the business had enjoyed "a reasonably good year".

"We've invested a lot in the business and in wages, so that's a good thing. We've had good sales and a good free cash flow.

"Northern Ireland had virtually a record year for the nine pubs, and we did well last year."

He said his two new pubs were still progressing through the planning process.

And he said he hoped "peace and democracy" would win out at Stormont, to ensure Northern Ireland's business community thrives.

"I think, like all countries in the world, Northern Ireland has had a fantastic benefit from democracy.

"That implies peace, so, I hope like everyone else that peace and democracy will win out, and I think that will be better for everyone."

But despite widespread concerns among business lobby groups, economists and the banking industry that Northern Ireland's economy was being stifled amid the current political instability, he said it "won't put us off" investing here.

"It won't put us off, but the danger is it will put other people off. So we hope there is a fair political resolution that everyone can deal with."

Belfast Telegraph