Tough year for NI pub trade

Pints of beer Some pubs have reported that takings are substantially reduced

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As the Northern Ireland pub industry gears up for what it hopes is a busy Christmas period, publicans are taking stock of what has been a difficult 12 months.

It has been a time of continuing financial restraint, compounded by the impact of the loyalist flag protests that began early last December.

The flag protests have seen some pub takings drop by 30%, but this issue came off the back of several years of poor trading, according to Colin Neill of the trade body Pubs of Ulster.

"Over the last five years, we've seen one pub a week close - that's over 250 pubs gone that will never come back," he said.

"I think we've learned from that - we've diversified, we've got cleverer, we've got better cost management."

'Devastating impact'

Gerry White, who manages a pub near Belfast city centre, says that while there are signs of business picking up, he has seen first-hand the financial impact of the unsettled times over the past year.

"Last year at Christmas, it had a devastating impact to the point that some people lost their jobs," he said.

Flag protests have been taking place since 3 December Loyalist flag protests began on 3 December last year

"People were afraid of not being able to get home - while normally on a Friday we would have had a packed house, people were rushing to get home in case they couldn't get home later on.

"Although I can see a slight increase in business, it's coming from local people rather than tourists."

Mr Neill said the pub trade faced other challenges such as more people drinking alcohol at home, but there were some causes for optimism.

"The economy is hopefully starting to turn, people are more positive and we're seeing that borne out by more people visiting pubs," he said.

Christmas bookings for office parties in Belfast are reported to be slow, and this is being attributed to concerns over protests around the first anniversary of the flags dispute.

However, publicans hope that business will pick up in the run-up to the Christmas holiday period.

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