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Friday, July 10, 1998 Published at 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK

Violence turns Belfast into 'ghost-town'

7.30pm - Belfast's normally busy Great Victoria Street is deserted

Report from BBC News online, Belfast

At the weekend the centre of Belfast would usually be busy and business brisk in its pubs, bars and restaurants. But the mood in the city is one of apprehension and as the stand-off continues at Drumcree and violence erupts in the province, the streets remain mostly empty.

[ image: The university area is also abandoned]
The university area is also abandoned
The petrol bombings, the hi-jackings and the shootings of the last few nights have ensured that people stay in their homes.

David McNarry, of the Orange Order's strategy committee, has said that if there is not a U-turn on the Garvaghy Road decision then his organisation could "paralyse this country in a matter of hours". Some would argue that things are already heading that way.

'Takings down 75%'

The manager of a normally popular pub in the centre of Belfast, who preferred not to be named, said the situation is already bad: "We opened on Monday evening [July 6] but closed our doors at nine - the place was absolutely empty. Since then we've closed at six o'clock every night".

The effect on business has been swift and detrimental: "This week, takings have been down 75%. At the weekend we'll close at six on Saturday and we'll stay closed until Wednesday", he said.

"Normally we might expect to take 12-13,000 over the weekend, but this weekend we'll take nothing."

He added that if the situation continues there could be serious consequences for staff: "If it keeps going you have to look at lay-offs. We're part of a large company so maybe we can sustain things a bit longer but not much. It can only go on for so long."

The pub's manager was hopeful that a resolution could be reached.

"I hope both parties can find a solution. They have to realise that this is affecting ordinary people and businesses".

Entertainment scene 'dead'

Martin Crawford, assistant editor of Fortnight magazine, a politics and arts magazine based in Belfast, says simply "the entertainment scene is dead".

He is a resident of Belfast's Sandy Row, an area badly affected by loyalist violence, and says he cannot even leave his own house, despite the fact that he is on leave from work. "It's crazy, I'm on my holidays and I can't even leave my own house as there's a roadblock outside. I can't even get out for a pint to watch the football."

[ image: The military are the only presence on the streets]
The military are the only presence on the streets
He says that fear is the factor that is keeping people away from normally busy areas. "There are a lot of bars in South Belfast, Sandy Row and the University area which are usually buzzing but now they're all closing at seven. The staff are too scared to try to get home and people are too scared to go out in case they run into one of these mobs."

Mr Crawford does not foresee an imminent improvement and is not surprised that people are keeping their distance: "No tourists are going to come here with these kinds of pictures being beamed around the world.

"It's happened for the last four years and I can only see it getting worse in the run-up to the 12th and 13th. Monday [July 13 - the climax of the marching season] is looking very bleak."

'Too dangerous' at night

One Belfast taxi driver, who again did not want to be named, said that he and his colleagues were also suffering: "Mornings are okay but at night it's just too dangerous. You have to refuse business and even refuse to take people to their own homes - but if the place is burning you can't go in.

"If you lose your car - you lose your livelihood. We may be insured but while you wait for the insurance payout you're earning nothing."

[ image: The pattern repeats itself all over town]
The pattern repeats itself all over town
He says he has nearly lost his car to hi-jackers twice already this week but that even though he has kept his vehicle, he is still suffering. "I work the airport and there's hardly any business now. I'm making enough just to pay the bills but that's it. I'd say my takings have halved this week."

He said he thinks things will get worse until the Portadown Orangemen are, at least in some way, allowed down the nationalist Garvaghy Road from which they have been banned by the Parades Commission. "I think the trouble will escalate until they get marching down that road. They should compromise: Let 12 marchers through and let 12 residents protest, that's my view. Then the rest of us can get on with earning our livings. The violence is no good, all it's doing is wrecking people's property and business," he said.

Cost could be 40m

Roy Bailie, Chairman of Northern Ireland Tourist Board, agrees. He says that Belfast will suffer great financial loss if the violence continues. "Tourism, which benefited so quickly in 1995 has been damaged in recent days, just as it has been damaged by violence for a generation.

"While it is not easy to put a figure on the actual current loss to the industry as opposed to the potential for the future - the loss of peak season tourism for July and August is costing at least 40m in lost revenue."

However, he is hopeful that the forecast will be less gloomy if the situation at Drumcree can be resolved. "Fortunately we are an industry that recovers quickly if given the chance. Should stability quickly return to our streets, I have no doubt that everyone involved in tourism across Northern Ireland will do their utmost to turn this situation around."

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