Belfast Telegraph

Save the Sunflower: Campaign to save Belfast's best pub from demolition

By Christopher Woodhouse

A bar toasted as the best in Belfast is facing the wrecking ball.

The Sunflower - favoured by artists, musicians, writers and those just looking for a quiet drink is in line to be knocked down as part of regeneration plans.

Just two weeks ago the watering hole was crowned best city bar at the Pubs of Ulster Awards 2015 event at the La Mon Hotel.

But now there are fears it will be forced to call last orders for good if plans for a massive redevelopment of part of the city centre are approved.

The pub will be a casualty of the proposed Northside regeneration scheme which will see the area between Royal Avenue and Carrick Hill transformed with student halls and apartment blocks.

“We’ll fight our corner, we’ve no intention of going anywhere and we’ll still be here when they have the wrecking balls outside,” the bar’s defiant owner Pedro Donald told Sunday Life.

In the three years since Pedro took ownership of the establishment, it has gone from a bunker-like back street drinking den to starring in a film and that awards triumph.

“It used to be The Tavern, then it became The Avenue and they were, let’s say, uninviting,” explained Pedro.

“I didn’t want to fancy it up or make it a gimmicky theme pub, just to keep it as a wee corner pub and it seems to have worked, people like it.

“Upstairs hadn’t been used in 20 years, it was like walking back into the 1980s, which is why it was used for the Good Vibrations film (the biopic of local music legend Terri Hooley).

“It gets used for Spanish classes, dance classes, meetings, the folk club and poetry nights. It’s not just a drinking den.

“I’m genuinely delighted with the success of the place.”

He added: “They talk about investing in rundown parts of town and regeneration but that’s exactly what we have done. It was a big risk but it worked. It’s frustrating but we are up for a fight.”

The modest Victorian building on the corner of Union Street and Kent Street has had a long and at times dark history.

During the Troubles the bar was the target of terrorist attacks on more than one occasion, including a car bomb in November 1973.

In May 1988 gunmen from the UVF-linked Protestant Action Force sprayed the pub with machine gun fire, killing three and injuring 10 others.

Following the attack the bar was fitted with its security cage which has been retained as a nod to those bleaker times.

It was still in its spit-and-sawdust Troubles-era incarnation when Pedro, a veteran of the Belfast bar and restaurant trade, bought it in 2012.

He transformed the drab and menacing looking establishment into a busy venue for music, comedy and education, removing the bunker-style widows and turning vacant ground into a spacious beer garden.

“We got our name from the old Sunflower which was on Corporation Street, that was knocked down to build the M3 motorway. We wanted to get the name of an old pub and bring it back,” he said.

“But it looks like the Sunflower is going to be knocked down again.”

Pedro only found out the pub was under threat when he saw the proposed redevelopment plans at a Department for Social Development (DSD) consultation.

“There were all these new plans for the area and that’s when I realised the pub wouldn’t exist any more,” he said.

“The way the DSD is going about this, they just draw a red line around an entire area and flatten it.

“That’s an outdated way of thinking; Belfast needs to save its old buildings.

“People will rally round a pub. We are not against redevelopment of the area, it needs it but there’s no reason why old and new can’t sit comfortably beside each other,” he said.

It’s not the first time Pedro and the Sunflower have fought against the rigid planning bureaucracy.

Nearly two years ago the Department for Regional Development, who have dominion over the roads and pavements, tried to force him to remove the former security cage that surrounds the bar’s front door.

Once common, the Sunflower’s cage is one of the last of its kind, so Pedro painted it and added hanging baskets, turning it into an eye-catching feature piece.

“They said it was making the footpath too narrow, I told them it had been there for 25 years and asked why it was too narrow now? Apparently there is a minimum footpath width or something. But we whipped up a bit of a campaign and just embarrassed them into defeat.”

The looming battle with the planners will not be won quite so easily.

But Pedro can also count on the support of thousands of loyal patrons.

“Male or female, gay or straight everybody is comfortable in here,” said Pedro, “but the people who draw red lines don’t care about that. They’re not interested.”

He added: “I’m up for a fight and I’ll enjoy it.”

- Christopher Woodhouse frequently props up the bar at the Sunflower.

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