Row over Belfast move to extend Sunday shopping hours
A row has erupted over plans to have Belfast city centre officially designated as a holiday resort - meaning that the shops could open for longer hours on Sundays.
This newspaper can reveal that Belfast Chamber of Commerce (BCC) is to lobby the city council to grant 'holiday resort' status to Belfast, thus clearing it to relax the current restrictions for a third of the year.
Former Victoria Square manager Hugh Black, who is currently BCC president, said he hoped the reclassification of Belfast could take place as early as next year.
But the plan has already run into opposition from a councillor who said Sunday should be left as a day for families, not shopping.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph today, Mr Black said it was vital for the tourism industry that visitors to the city had greater choice.
One of the main complaints from foreign tourists is that there is little or nothing to do in central Belfast on Sunday mornings, with all the main attractions closed and only a few coffee shops open for business.
Several coastal towns enjoy the benefits of holiday resort status and Mr Black believes the time has come for Belfast to get a slice of the cake.
"Belfast Chamber would certainly like to look at the city centre as a designated holiday resort," said the 54-year-old businessman.
"There's a law that says the council can offer holiday resort status to their town for 18 weeks a year if it meets the right criteria. Newry is a holiday resort because the local council gave them that status. Kilkeel and Portrush are as well.
"It gives the large stores the opportunity to open longer hours for 18 weeks from April until the end of September and we see that as an opportunity now with the amount of foreign tourists."
He added: "We're looking at it now and we'd like to talk to the city council about it with a view to having it in place next year."
However, High Sheriff of Belfast Jim Rodgers said that trading hours in the city as they stand are sufficient and should be left alone.
"Sunday should be respected as a day for the family rather than for shopping," the Ulster Unionist said.
"I'm a big supporter of the business community and I always have been, but I don't think extending the current opening times is the answer. It won't improve the city.
"Trading hours have increased considerably in recent years and I've noticed that footfall on a Sunday has been declining."
Mr Rodgers added: "Belfast is not unique. In numerous cities across the world shops are closed on Sunday mornings so complaining about Belfast is moaning for the sake of moaning
Strangford MP Jim Shannon also said he was in favour of maintaining the status quo.
"Our party position, and my opinion, is that there is no need for a change in shop opening hours," the DUP man said.
A spokesman for Belfast City Council said they had received a request to give Northern Ireland's capital special status.
"The council has received correspondence from Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce asking that consideration be given to Belfast being designated as a 'holiday resort'," he said.
"However, this request has not yet been considered by the council, and so it would be inappropriate to comment any further at this stage."