Open Belfast bus lanes at weekends, says Arlene Foster
DUP Enterprise Minister proposes weekend use to assist city traders
Motorists in Belfast city centre should be able to use bus lanes at weekends, a Stormont minister has suggested.
The DUP's Arlene Foster has argued the move would help throw a lifeline to hard-pressed shop owners facing a financial squeeze from dropping footfall in the city.
The Enterprise Minister has written to Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy – who has responsibility for roads – to ask him to consider the move.
She told the Assembly she has not yet heard back from the Ulster Unionist minister, who last year granted a Christmas reprieve for motorists after a spate of new bus lanes were introduced in Belfast.
"I presume that Roads Service will have to have a look at it to see whether it can be practically implemented," Mrs Foster said.
The DUP minister also urged protest organisers to hold talks with retail chiefs to prevent further trade losses in the city.
Her comments came at Question Time after NI21 leader Basil McCrea asked for an assessment of the impact of civil unrest and street protest on the economy.
The Trade and Enterprise minister said recent events in the city have hit trade and damaged the reputation of Northern Ireland abroad.
She came under fire for suggesting other factors were involved in the squeeze facing city traders, including bus lanes.
Mrs Foster said she was not underplaying the impact of civil disturbance but "there are a number of factors at play here. In Belfast in particular, it is about bus lanes, parking, city centre access, disposable income and other issues".
The SDLP's Alban Maginness said: "It is not the problem with bus lanes that is choking trade in Belfast but the continuance of parades, demonstrations and flag demonstrations and so on."
The North Belfast MLA asked Mrs Foster to support him in calling for a moratorium on further protests and demonstrations during the negotiations being chaired by American diplomat Richard Haass.
The DUP minister said she agreed with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers that it would be detrimental to people's human and civil rights to deny them the right to protest.
"What I am saying is that I hope that those who organise protests and parades, as they have a right to do, will also recognise the rights of the traders in Belfast city centre and their need to make a living.
"I do not want a message sent out from Belfast that it is a cold house for those people who want to protest and parade, because it is their city as well," Mrs Foster added.