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Belfast shop staff being ‘traumatised’ by street preachers with amplifiers, council told

Belfast shops appeal to council as employees left ‘traumatised and intimidated’ by groups using loud amplifiers 


street preacher

street preacher

In Pictures via Getty Images

street preacher

Belfast city centre shop staff are being “traumatised” by street preachers with amplifiers, a council committee has heard.

At Belfast City Council’s recent Strategic Policy and Resources Committee ,  shop owners pleaded with elected representatives to change local bylaws, so that amplification would be forbidden on city centre streets.

Particular mention was made about the noise made by street preachers.

The appeal came as elected members received an update on draft amenity bylaws for the city, away from the public and press.

New bylaw proposals are currently being worked out in an attempt to deal with noise levels and controversial content at protests and performances.

Last year the draft was stalled after it was leaked that the new bylaws, put together by council officers, involved the requirement for a licence for any individual or group using amplification in the city centre, with fines up to £500 for those failing to comply.

The full council agreed not to approve this measure, but with a split chamber.

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At last week’s committee meeting representatives of a chemist, McDonalds, Starbucks and a library all united to call for a change on street amplification.
Forty impact statements from businesses affected have also been forwarded to the council.

John Clark of Gordons Chemist told councillors his staff at the Cornmarket store said the High Street entrance was regularly blocked off by street preachers. He said: “Staff talked about how people came into the pharmacy saying they felt threatened, and did not want to come down Cornmarket running that cordon of preachers.”

He added: “Myself and the company have absolutely no issue with preaching, we have no issue with there being rules about these sorts of things. But what we are experiencing goes way and above simple preaching. The issues are also about the noise coming from them, from musicians, and mainly, the use of amplifiers.”

He said: “We operate confidential pharmacy services. We have had many patients and customers leave the pharmacy because they couldn’t actually be heard, between the noise, them and staff wearing masks. Our staff are stressed because of the complaints, and because they can’t hear the customers who are then leaving the store.”

He said: “There is an element of confidentiality, and if a patient has to speak louder because of the din and racket from outside in Cornmarket, then we can’t be sure that the confidentiality is being honoured. And they feel uncomfortable, there is no doubt about that.”

He added: “This is not about religion, it is about noise pollution. But also I think there needs to be immediate action in relation to anybody who is preaching homophobia and anti-Semitism. And that has been witnessed. These people are very cute. They will turn their amplifier down if the police neighbourhood officer arrives.”

He said: “It has been said to me before that a person doesn’t have to walk past the preacher or musician. Well actually our staff have absolutely no say in that. They have to work  from nine in the morning to six at night and are subjected to this all of the hours it happens. They can’t leave, they can’t go up a different street. The council must be cognisant of that fact.”

Geraldine Duggan, of Belfast City Centre Management said: “Coming out of those business impact statements very clearly is the effect these activities have on the mental health of employees.

"It’s not just about the bottom line and profitability, it is about the health of the employees.”

Starbucks regional area manager Barbara McMaster added: “The noise level and the impact on staff is horrendous at times.

"The groups will have a stand-off, the homophobic group will start shouting louder than the preaching group, and it just escalates and escalates,” she added.

“We have a very diverse staff, and they have to run the gauntlet with all that.

"They have no choice but to listen, and make their way through it to get into work at Castle Lane. Some of them have been quite upset by what they have been hearing.

“We have had staff been told to go back to their own country, simply because they couldn’t be heard, despite their language skills being excellent. That has a very detrimental effect.

“We had a leaver last week who said one of the reasons he left was the antisocial behaviour in the city centre and what he has to deal with, and having to listen to the homophobic abuse in the city centre at certain times of the day.

“It is intimidating, some of the language that is used is insulting, and it is deafening at times. We need to do something holistically to sort this out.”

Sinn Fein councillor Christina Black said: “I think we need to recognise there is an issue with Cornmarket. The atmosphere is negative, and feels confrontational. It is not welcoming presently.

“Everyone has the right to protest, to gather, to express their own views, but there are definitely points in the city centre where it is not conducive to a good retail, visiting or even walking experience for people who live in the city.”

Alliance councillor Michael Long said: “It has been fascinating to hear how this impacts on staff, and that there is a responsibility here because staff are being traumatised.”

He added: “This really is putting off people going into shops close by. It is something very worrying, and there is a depressing atmosphere around it. It is not what we want when we are trying to get people back into our city centre.”


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