Pubs 'will not survive' impact of flag protests

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A number of pubs and restaurants will "unfortunately not survive" the drop in business caused by recent flag protests, the chief executive of Pubs of Ulster said on 28 February 2013.

Colin Neill said the licensed retail trade had been "affected badly" by the protests.

He told the Enterprise Committee that his members had seen their turnover during December "fall off a cliff".

Mr Neill explained that for five weeks over the Christmas period, the industry usually received a third of its turnover for the year.

He said that instead members were reporting they were down 54% and "that's just unsustainable".

Mr Neill said although they had seen success with the Backin' Belfast campaign, the situation was "so fragile" and "any word of a protest" saw custom "tail off".

He also said international reporting of the flag protest caused Northern Ireland's reputation worldwide damage.

"It gave the impression that all of Belfast was a no-go area," he said.

"We have a big job to try and repair Northern Ireland's international image."

Chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA), Glyn Roberts, said the Backin' Belfast campaign should be used as a template to revive other towns and city centres.

He said the campaign had taken advantage of a social media market that had otherwise not been tapped into in Northern Ireland.

Mr Roberts said offers to encourage people to shop and eat out in the city centre had been continually reposted on Twitter.

"Sometimes when you have times of crisis, the best innovations come out," he said.

DUP North Antrim MLA Paul Frew said he was concerned that if it became a blanket campaign across Northern Ireland it would lose focus.

Loyalist street demonstrations took place following Belfast City Council's decision on 3 December 2012 to limit the number of days the union flag was flown at Belfast City Hall.

The majority of the street demonstrations passed without incident, but some resulted in serious rioting.

David Sterling, permanent secretary of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, also briefed committee members on regional aid.

The Executive uses the aid to attract investment and job creation in Northern Ireland.

"It is supposed to provide convergence between the poorest regions and the most wealthy regions in Europe," he explained.

Mr Sterling said that the European Commission had decided that to achieve this, some regions would be given added assisted area status and others would not.

He explained why Northern Ireland's economic position meant that it must keep its 100% assisted area status.

He said this was because of its land border with the Irish Republic which has a lower rate of corporation tax, the fact that living standards were 20% below the UK average and its low rate of unemployment.

The permanent secretary recommended that the committee write to Westminster Business Minister Michael Fallon and Business Secretary Vince Cable to put forward a case for why Northern Ireland was at a "competitive disadvantage".

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