After a series of incidents in the last 10 days, Andrew Madden talks to the police, politicians, local shop owners and retail body chiefs about the recent violence and what can be done about it
A violent crime spree across Belfast, with many of the incidents involving knives, has left victims terrified and others questioning how safe is Northern Ireland’s capital city.
Several city centre shopkeepers fear shoppers are now avoiding certain streets due to high levels of substance abuse — which they say is happening openly — and which is believed to be a factor in some of the crimes.
The growing problem of violence on our capital’s streets has come under the spotlight after a series of incidents over the last 10 days.
At around 5pm on Friday, July 9, two men walked into a shop on North Street in the city centre as a female shop worker was locking up. One of the men was armed with a knife and the staff member received cuts to her neck and head, before the pair made off with cash and a mobile phone.
Less than an hour later, it was reported that a woman in her 20s was walking on Rugby Road when two men in a silver car pulled up next to her and tried to get her into the car. However, she was able to flee to a nearby shop for safety.
The following Monday, July 12, a man armed with a knife robbed an off-licence on the Oldpark Road, making off with cash.
At around 4.10am last Tuesday, a taxi driver collected two men who directed him to the Ludlow Square area of the city. The front-seat passenger proceeded to pull out a screwdriver and press it against the driver’s cheek, demanding money. Meanwhile, the victim was struck on the head by the passenger in the back seat.
The driver, who sustained a cut to his arm, managed to raise the alarm, and the two perpetrators made off with his mobile phone, wallet, cash, and bank cards.
Just after 8.40pm the next day, a teenager in the city centre asked two men for directions. He walked with them from Great Victoria Street, along Grosvenor Road, Durham Street and on to Athol Street, where he was threatened at knifepoint by the suspects. The assailants made off with cash and headed towards College Square North.
Rosemary Street in the city centre was the scene of another shocking attack in the early hours of Wednesday morning, when a man was knocked to the ground by three men, had a knife held to his throat, and his bank card and mobile phone stolen.
Police investigating a link between two of the armed robberies, those on Athol and Rosemary Street, have arrested two men, who are in custody.
On Saturday, there were a further two stabbing incidents.
The first happened shortly before 2am when a man received cuts to his head and arms after being attacked in a flat in the Ulster Street area.
The second, at around 10.30pm, saw a 21-year-old man stabbed in the Fitzroy Avenue area of the city.
Also on Saturday, two men armed with weapons were involved in an altercation at the junction of Pearl Street and My Lady’s Road in east Belfast. One of the men, aged 53, was hospitalised with serious injuries, while the other was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.
While not all the incidents are linked, the spate of high-profile cases has caused alarm, although police insist the number of crimes remains low.
PSNI Superintendent Gillian Kearney said a robbery, either against a person or business, is an extremely traumatic event which has a lasting impact on those directly affected, and police will carry out a thorough and robust investigation to bring those responsible before the courts for this type of offence.
“Overall, the number of robberies which have occurred in our city remains low and whilst we see a reduction in incidents involving knives or sharp instruments, we are certainly not complacent. We do not want knife crime to become a major issue, as in other parts of the UK, and our main focus is on prevention,” she said.
“Our message is clear and simple: never carry a knife. Some may think it is acceptable to carry a knife, possibly as a form of protection, but please be assured nothing can protect you from the irreversible consequences of using one. The fact is that knives are dangerous — people get hurt, lives can be lost in seconds, and families shattered.
“We always welcome the opportunity to engage across different platforms to help enhance and improve the service we deliver. As we see Belfast beginning to return to normal as a vibrant and busy city, it is important that our officers provide a visible policing presence, working with key partners and stakeholders to prevent crime and make people feel safe.
“We will continue to work hard to keep Belfast a safe place to live, work and socialise for all those in our city.”
However, others fear crime is on the rise as society emerges from the Covid crisis.
SDLP councillor Carl Whyte is a former chair of the Belfast Policing and Community Safety partnership, which brings together police and other statutory agencies such as the Fire Service and social services, with political representatives and independent members, to discuss how to tackle crime and other issues facing the city.
“The pandemic has brought a range of unique challenges and, as we return to normality, where we had seen a drop in crime — we’re now starting to see it rise,” he said.
“It’s vital police are on the ground, engaging with the community so people feel safe. There is also the wider issue of how we prevent crime, how we create a situation where it is unacceptable, but it not just down to police, but every statutory agency.
“Belfast is one of the safest places in Europe and Northern Ireland has one of the lowest crime rates too, so there’s absolutely no question about you being at risk when you come here. People visiting here can be assured that Belfast is a safe and welcoming place.”
For shops in Belfast, the recent crimes are only part of the story, with staff often facing threats and abuse.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, said robberies in shops like those seen in recent days have a “massive” impact on workers and, behind the statistics, these are people with families and their own pressures who have the right to feel safe at work.
“Crimes against retail workers are not victimless, they impact workers, their families and businesses. What we have seen since the start of the pandemic are instances of verbal and physical abuse against retail workers more than double,” he said.
“That’s on top of workers doing everything they can to keep customers safe in terms of Covid regulations, mask wearing, asking for ID — all these things have resulted in a trend of abuse towards shop workers.”
He added that wider crime levels in the city can undoubtedly affect footfall, and has called for an increased police presence in the city and more police officers in the ranks.
“But by and large, our towns and cities are safe.
“Belfast is a safe city, people are coming back to our retailers, our restaurants and bars, so people should not be put off by the threat of crime — this is a safe city,” he added.
One aspect of these crimes the Retail NI chief highlighted was the level at which they are perpetrated by those suffering from addiction issues, something reflected in the comments of several shop owners in the city centre who spoke to the Belfast Telegraph.
A shopkeeper on Lombard Street, Linda Ferris, said: “This area is bad, this street is dreadful. Over the (Lagan) bridge is lovely, but what do the tourists think of this area? I don’t know. Without a doubt it has gotten worse and the biggest problem at the minute fuelling it is prescription drug abuse. It’s sad to see, you see the same wee faces, it’s awful.”
Another shopkeeper nearby, who wished to remain anonymous, said he has been working in the city centre for more than two decades and he thinks it has “gone down big time” in relation to crime.
“Round here, you see ambulances all the time, dragging addicts out of the toilets. Fights in the streets. Lately, I’ve seen things in Belfast that I’ve never seen before — it’s rife,” he said.
“People are afraid to even walk up and down this street. They avoid it because of the amount of head-cases running about it, to be fair. People come into the shop all the time, off their heads on tablets, and half the time they don’t even know why they’ve come in. You just have to push them back out again.
“Locking up, I would be more wary these times. I’m definitely more aware of what’s going on these days. When anything kicks off, you just hope the police are nearby.”
Mandy Chism and her elderly mum Mary Ross, who was the subject of a terrifying robbery last year, run a vintage shop nearby.
“We’ve had a few shops in the area and been the victims of several robberies. My 81-year-old mum has been shaken up in the past, threatened by people, stealing whatever they could,” Mandy said.
“There are addicts around and they’re generally okay, unless they really need a fix. We’re a small operation and can’t afford loads of extra security. We have to put anything remotely expensive behind the counter or under glass. What can you do?”
Mandy agreed that some shoppers avoid the area due to the trouble. Mary added: “Now when I see someone acting suspicious, because of what has happened to me in the past, I panic.”