Last orders: Time called on one in five of Northern Ireland's bars in three years
Dramatic litany of closures in one year highlights slump
Time has been called on almost one in five of Northern Ireland's pubs in just three years as a result of the economic downturn, it can be revealed.
Hundreds of bars have closed amid unprecedented trading difficulties, with the licensing industry fearing an acceleration in the casualty rate.
Indeed, for many public houses across the province, experts have predicted that this Christmas really could be their last chance of survival.
As the failure rate of bars here is now running at a frightening three per week, the message from publicans is simple: "Don't sit at home, get out and enjoy some yule-tide cheer in your local pub during the festive period."
Their rallying call comes after the latest industry figures revealed that the economic downturn claimed 174 pubs across the province in 2012, while a worrying 237 have shut since 2009.
Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, the professional body that oversees the local retail licensed trade, said it had been a tough year.
"We'd be foolish to say it hasn't been challenging for the industry; it has, and we've lost a lot of pubs," he said.
"There are still challenges ahead, but we're starting to see positive signs across the province.
"People need to come out and support their local pubs if they want them to stay in business."
The leisure industry in Belfast has been badly hit over the last 12 months as a result of ongoing protests – sometimes violent – following a decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag at City Hall.
However, publicans in rural towns and villages have had their own issues, as consumers cut back on their luxury spending in order to make ends meet.
In Ballymena, for example, four pubs – The Imperial, The Moat Bar, The Ballee Arms and The Inn – served last orders to their clientele.
Stephen Reynolds, who owns The Front Page bar in the Co Antrim town, said: "There were 34 bars here when I started out 23 years ago and that's now down to 17, which is indicative of the pressures we're under.
"Publicans not only have rent and rates to contend with, there's an added problem with supermarkets selling beer and spirits cheaper as retail products than we can buy if from wholesellers."
In 2007, there were 1,481 premises with liquor licences in Northern Ireland, according to figures from Pubs of Ulster, compared to 1,252 in 2012 – and 174 pub closures last year alone.
Sunflower blooms in tough times
Belfast publican Pedro Donald opened the Sunflower pub on Union Street, close to Belfast city centre, one year ago this week.
He admitted that he has had his fair share of problems this year, but was confident that the tide of economic despair had definitely turned.
"Business is good but it hasn't been an easy ride," said Pedro, who has worked in the pub industry for almost 30 years.
"When we first opened there was the heavy snow which left us without electricity for a weekend and then we had the flag protests.
"One of our windows was also broken in an attack during a riot on Royal Avenue in August. But apart from that, we've been doing well."
He added: "As long as people support their local pubs they will survive; if they don't, it will make a difficult situation even more difficult."
The good news is that those in the pub industry believe that things are looking up.
Indeed, last weekend bars saw a boost in numbers during Small Business Saturday which brought tens of thousands of people into Belfast. And, earlier this week, the Orange Order cancelled a protest parade in the city centre that would have dissuaded people from coming in. Publicans in rural towns have also reported a surge in numbers, with people starting to believe the recession is coming to an end.
Consumers are once again going out at the weekend, according to Pedro, although they are demanding more from venues.
"People will go to the pub is there's a reason to go there, whether that's a quiz, or for music or an open mic session," he said.
"Hopefully we're starting to see a return of the good times now that the economy appears to be picking up a bit.
"It might be the last Christmas for some unlucky publicans, but it definitely won't be for me."