Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 24 January 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Belfast Protests: Discussion
We are meeting to discuss the impact of the recent protests in Belfast on the local retail sector. I am delighted to welcome back Mr. Glyn Roberts who is no stranger to the joint committee. He was here with the delegation from the Northern Ireland business trust in 2012. He is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association. Obviously, members of the committee will have observations to make and questions to ask following his presentation. He will be aware that as a committee we travelled to Belfast on 22 and 23 November.
We had a very enriching experience when we met groups from both communities at the interface. We came away with a sense that a good deal of progress has been made and then on 3 December, a few weeks later, things changed. We know from the people we met from both communities that even at an interface level there is an overwhelming desire to progress. We as a committee would like to acknowledge the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland. We also would like to articulate the desire of this committee to act as a facilitator in a way that allows the representatives of their group and other groups the space to come before this committee and give their interpretation of the situation and to show a generosity of spirit for all communities and people who can offer constructive proposals. That is the view of this committee. We are delighted that the representatives are here today and we look forward to their presentation.
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
I thank Chairman for that. It is great to be back and I appreciate the opportunity to present on this very challenging subject.
I want to give members some idea of the damage being done to the Northern Ireland economy as a result of the ongoing flag protests and of our plans to address the problem. By way of background information, my organisation represents more than 1,400 members in every village, town and city in Northern Ireland. Our members include independent retailers of all kinds, wholesalers, the suppliers sector and a number of affiliated chambers of commerce. Over the years we have built excellent relationships. RGDATA and Retail Excellence Ireland and Retail Excellence Ireland and ourselves have been keen of late to work with InterTradeIreland to examine how we can develop the potential of the retail sector as a whole on this island. We are in the early stages of establishing a joint North-South retail forum to address the many challenges facing the sector and, more importantly, how we can create the next generation of retail entrepreneurs on the island, how we can create 21st century town and city centres on the island and how we can develop the island of Ireland as a major retail destination. The island of Ireland is known for its world-class food. Another idea is could we develop this island as a word-class retail destination in the years to come. Those are some of the ideas we have been developing and I would be happy to touch on those at a later stage. I thought it would be useful for the committee to note where we are in the early stages of this process.
In 2012 the retail sector trade in the UK and on the island of Ireland was one of the worst since records began. In the 2011-12 period, nearly 2,000 shops and smaller chain stores closed their doors in Northern Ireland and, sadly, Northern Ireland achieved the status of having the worst shop vacancy rate in the UK - it is twice the national average. One in four shops in Belfast is vacant and across the North one in five is vacant.
We have put forward our ideas in a 50-point plan, which I would be happy to share at some point, on how we can turn the situation around in our retail sector and in our town and city centres. I want to set that out to give the context of where we are at. Many traders thought that Christmas 2012 would be their harvest time given that 2012 was such a bad year. They had hoped that it would be a very productive Christmas but, sadly for many, that was not the case when the flag protests and rioting began.
The impact of the flag protests has brought the commercial heart of Belfast to its knees and severely impacted on the wider Northern Ireland economy. In recent weeks retailers and traders have been struggling to get people through their doors. As a result, many businesses in Belfast have been forced to let staff go and as the situation is showing no signs of improving more job losses are expected in the coming weeks.
A closer analysis of the trade figures at Christmas show that trade in Belfast was to some degree displaced to other town and city centres in the North and to Dublin and there was also a big increase in online and out-of-town trade. Many shoppers in Belfast were put off coming into the city centre on Saturdays because of the regular protest which takes place every Saturday which effectively gridlocks the main part of Belfast city centre. I want to be clear on this. It is not for my organisation to comment on the politics of flying the Union flag or on how Belfast City Council votes, what is crucial for us to do is to comment on the damage being done to Belfast and a number of other towns in the North.
With regard to some of the wider issues in terms of cost, our colleagues in the CBI estimate the loss to our economy to be around £15 million. I would say that is now a very conservative figure. The cost of policing the protest was recently put at £7 million and, again, I would say the figure is likely to be much more than that.
Our colleagues in the Pubs of Ulster who represent the licensed trade in Northern Ireland reveal that pubs, restaurants and hotels are suffering severely as a result of the protests with people not going out and visitors opting to avoid towns and cities. As a result trade has dropped by an average of 30% and in some cases by as much as 55% during recent weeks. In real terms the hospitality industry is suffering a dramatic drop in turnover with one publican alone reporting a loss of £95,000 before Christmas and £60,000 after the Christmas period and with another publican reporting that trade fell by 54% in one week alone. There is grave concern that the situation is showing no signs of improving.
However, what is very hard to put a real figure on is the damage done to Northern Ireland's international reputation at a time where we are seeking to attract more tourists and foreign direct investment. I have lost count of the number of international media, from al-Jazeera to CNN, who have reported the violence, all sending highly damaging images of violence and rioting right across the world. We want to be very clear on this. We believe that the protests, the violence and illegal blocking of roads should end immediately. This is a political problem and can only be resolved by politics. We would urge all the political to go the extra mile to resolve the flag issue and other grievances and, above all, let us take this problem off the streets. The bottom line in all of this is that political stability and greater progress on the shared future agenda is essential for sustained economic development. Divided societies are bad for business.
I am sure that the Chairman and his colleagues saw the television pictures of the riots in east Belfast on the Newtownards Road and the Albertbridge Road and I know that they are meeting some community representatives from Short Strand today. I was born and bred just off the Newtownards road and I still live in east Belfast. That area faces huge challenges in terms of educational underachievement and the people there are crying out for new jobs and private sector investment but the reality is that will not happen while ongoing rioting and violence continue in those areas. Many of our members and local traders in those areas are on their knees, their businesses will not last very much longer, and that will add to the unemployment figures in that area.
However, the Pubs of Ulster and the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and ourselves have joined together to bring solutions to Ministers in the Executive on how to address the problems facing our hospitality and retail sector in Belfast. On Tuesday we met six Executive Ministers from all the parties to outline the need for an immediate funding of a marketing campaign to promote the city centre and to encourage the citizens of Belfast to exercise their civic responsibility and to support our retailers, pubs and restaurants, particularly over the next two weekends which, effectively, are the pay day weekends. This campaign will be called "Backin' Belfast". I have given the clerk a copy of our strategy document, and members may have a copy of it in from of them, which we submitted to the Executive Minsters on how we consider this can be funded. One of the core themes of it is what are the immediate challenges we need to face because doing nothing is not an option.
The second phase of the campaign must aim to try to repair the international damage done to Northern Ireland's reputation. As Belfast is the centre of the regional economy in Northern Ireland, it is vital that our efforts are focused there first. If it suffers; all of Northern Ireland will suffer. We hope that by protecting the future of trade in Belfast we are limiting the damage caused to local businesses right across Northern Ireland, ensuring the sustainability of the local economy as a whole.
We have been greatly encouraged by the level of support we have received from all five parties and welcome the continuing discussions focused on providing immediate support for the business community in Belfast. Without doubt, each Minister we have met has stepped up to the plate and vowed to look at ways to help traders and retailers through this difficult time. We have made significant progress and are looking at a number of options, including a commitment to conduct an immediate marketing campaign and help the businesses worst affected.
There was some discussion about rate relief. We are clear that in the short term that is probably not going to happen. There is no point in giving £1,000 in rate relief to businesses that are losing thousands of pounds every week. What we need are people – footfall – in the city centre, customers in the shops, pubs and restaurants. That is what we hope the marketing campaign will do. This weekend, in particular, there will be great use of social media. There is a Take Back our City campaign and another called Backing Belfast. It will all be trending on Twitter and Facebook and there will be a lot of advertising and offers. I encourage the Chairman and members to visit if they have nothing better to do in the next couple of weekends as they will definitely find a bargain and have a good time in Belfast city centre. I am well aware of the MPs for West Tyrone and Fermanagh-South Tyrone. There are fantastic opportunities in Enniskillen, Omagh and Strabane. I thought I would get in the plug.
I also hope to brief the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin while I am in Dublin, as well as representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. If there is one message I want to get across to the committee, it is that I am optimistic that we can move forward. Instead of dwelling on the problem, we must focus on the solutions. We realise that all the marketing in the world will not amount to much unless we have the issues resolved and the protests come to an end. Doing nothing is not an option. Northern Ireland has so much potential in the coming year, with Derry being the City of Culture, the G8 summit and the World Police and Fire Games taking place. I really do believe we will bounce back. I, therefore, urge committee members to pass on to their constituents the message that they should not let the protests put them off. Belfast and Northern Ireland are great places to visit. If one is a tourist, we have some of the best restaurants and retailers in the world. I, therefore, urge members not to be put off by what they see. They should come up and support us. I do believe we will get through this.
I welcome Mr. Roberts and thank him for his presentation. As someone who comes from a retail background – my family had a newsagent's shop – I am aware of how challenging it has been for smaller retailers in recent years. We were also on the Newtownards Road. On most of the main streets in Belfast what is left are pubs, bookies and hairdressers. It is difficult to compete with out-of-town businesses and large retailers such as Aldi and Tesco. It is a significant issue in the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and the Republic. Does Mr. Roberts have a message for businesses, most of which are just hanging on with dwindling reserves?
Reference was made to rates. There is a clamour in the Republic to get rid of rates for businesses. Is Mr. Roberts aware of any incentive that could be introduced in this regard?
I am someone who is not put off by the flag protests. I regularly travel to Belfast which I enjoy visiting, but I did not because I did not need the aggravation. If someone like me is saying this, one can be certain there are tens of thousands across the United Kingdom and the Republic who will not bother going there.
Who is being targeted in the campaign? Is it people in Belfast, across the island of Ireland or in the United Kingdom?
I thank Mr. Roberts for his presentation. What we need is a cessation of the sectarian violence because, regardless of the marketing initiatives taken and they are necessary, it is difficult to counteract the pictures being shown around the world by the broadcast media. I spoke to a young person outside the continent of Europe who told me that they were watching Sky News and that it was a case of violence on the streets of Ireland again. It is not just Northern Ireland that is being affected in a negative way by this publicity but the entire island because the person to whom I spoke said Sky News was churning out these images every few minutes. That is very damaging for the entire island but Belfast, in particular. Did Mr. Roberts mention that £15 million or £50 million was the estimated commercial loss to date?
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
It is a conservative figure, to which we must add the cost of policing and the impact on potential investors. I know of investors who have seen the pictures on television and pulled their projects. The impact is difficult to quantify, but the Deputy is right - we must bring the protests on the streets to an end. The issues must be resolved politically, as doing nothing is not an option. We must do what we can to get people in Belfast, in particular, to support businesses in their city centre at this difficult time. We have said it is their civic duty to do so. Not every road in Belfast is blockaded. There is not violence in every part of the city. It is only in a relatively small number of areas and there is a small minority involved in the rioting. The vast majority have no time for taking part in riots and attacking the police. They may have their own views about the Union flag, which is fine, but they do not believe it is necessary to attack the police to prove a point.
We have to start promoting the city. A week or two ago there was an unofficial Twitter campaign, Operation Sit In, to encourage people to stay in Belfast after work. It had a degree of success and certainly took the edge off it. We have been considering how we can build on it by using social media to encourage people to support traders at this difficult time. We have to do everything we can in that regard. The most pressing need is to increase footfall in Belfast city centre. I hope the entire campaign will start to bear some fruit this weekend, but we must deal with the elephant in the room, that is, ending the protests and letting the politicians take charge of the issue.
Have the local print media been supportive of Mr. Roberts' members because I am sure all of them are constituent members or big advertisers? That is a simple commercial fact. As we are aware, the local media play an important role. Have they been supportive of Mr. Roberts' members' efforts to portray a better image of the city centre and its attractions, including as a shopping destination, etc?
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
The Belfast Telegraph, in particular, has stepped up to the plate. All our local newspapers have tried to cover the story in a responsible way. It does not help to have had so many international media in Northern Ireland over the past few weeks beaming abroad pictures of riots and violence. We all know how difficult it is to attract foreign direct investment. The images being beamed across the world do us absolutely no favours at all. They lead to the widespread misconception that the whole of Northern Ireland is like this. I would not be surprised if there were a knock-on effect throughout the island of Ireland. Obviously, bad news sells in the media.
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
In our document we have tried to outline 50 solutions. If we are to create 21st-century town and city centres and revitalise the retail sector, we need a radical change in policy in terms of what the Executive does and how retailers do their business. We have said we need a more joined-up approach, including on the part of the Executive, to urban regeneration. It does not help in Northern Ireland that there are three Government Departments responsible for town centre regeneration. We must examine this.
We have made progress on rates. The small business rates relief scheme has been extended for the second time and it will come into play on 1 April. We now have the empty premises relief, for which we lobbied heavily. If a new business takes over an empty premises that has been empty for a year, it must pay only 50% of the rates normally due in the first year. We all know that the first year of any business is critical. If one is paying only 50% of the rates in the first year, it is a help. The relief has helped approximately 69 new businesses, including restaurants and shops.
We need a proper joined-up vacancy strategy. We need an effective audit of vacant sites in towns and city centres. We also need more engagement with some of the retail chains. Local authorities to be created in the next year or two will have a substantially greater role in regeneration and planning. It is a question of engaging with retail chains to tell them a certain empty building would be a perfect location for their shop. We need more pop-up shops. We need to determine how to create the next generation of retail entrepreneurs and how we support them. We must get car parking facilities and a range of other facilities right. I hope this is all contained in the document.
The biggest change must come in the mindset of traders themselves. They must stop seeing online business as a threat and regard it as an opportunity. They must ensure they have world-class customer service and embrace new ways of doing business. The reality in retail is that the only constant is change. If retailers do not embrace change, they will go under, sadly. A constant process of reinvention and innovation is required. We must rethink fundamentally our approach to the centres of towns and cities. That is why we are concerned that the hospitality sector is being hit so hard. An integral part of any town or city centre is a strong night-time economy and café culture. Town and city centres must be made into destinations. This is why we are particularly concerned that, out of the two sectors that have been hit, the hospitality sector has been hit the hardest. This is why the marketing campaign we are trying to get off the ground is very much targeted at the hospitality sector. Overall, we want footfall in Belfast city centre. If Dublin were going through what Belfast is going through, every Deputy in this House, irrespective of what part of the island he was from, would be seeking to determine how the problem could be solved. It is a question of focusing on everything I have mentioned. This weekend, we will use social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to galvanise people from any part of the island to come to the city centre to support us.
I congratulate whoever thought of the sit-in. It is really taking off. I saw a report on a restaurant beside the constituency office of Ms Naomi Long, MLA, and noted the difficulty the proprietor was having. An act of solidarity is required.
Reference was made to businesses that lost £95,000. Was this in a particular corner where the protests are being held? Mr. Roberts may not wish to identify the company, which is acceptable. Ninety-five thousand is a huge sum. Has there been any incident involving a tourist? If there has been none, it is important that this be said.
Masked individuals can be intimidating, regardless of the location. If there are 40 or 50 people masked, that in itself constitutes a problem. While I acknowledge signage has been put up, I wonder what the next step is. What is Mr. Roberts's suggestion in this regard? What is his organisation's message to politicians on this subject? He states people need to sit down and talk.
We need to understand Belfast is a shared city. People have said to me that one reason they were not going into the city centre, apart from the protests, was uncertainty over public transport. Public transport is important. People will not go out to enjoy themselves or socialise if they are not sure of getting home. These are some of the points that the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association and PSNI need to examine.
People on this side of the Border realise that although the protests in Belfast are very small, they are having a huge effect, locally and throughout the city as a whole. What is the police force saying on its response in this regard?
Mr. Roberts referred to visitors. Is there anything specific he is asking this committee to do to support the sit-in or campaign, or to publicise what his organisation is doing?
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
To answer Deputy Crowe's first question, no tourist or shopper has been injured as a result of the protests. That is a very important point to get across. We met the chief constable last week and that is one of the first things he said. Issues arise as to getting policing right. I recognise the PSNI is an incredibly difficult position. At times, it is caught in the middle and trying to ensure roads are kept open. There are steps the police need to take. I understand the force is reconsidering its tactics in this area.
With regard to Belfast being a shared city, the Deputy is correct. It illustrates why we need an effective shared-future strategy. Ultimately, a shared future is about an economically sustainable future. Companies will not invest in divided societies. Some of the worst aspects of unemployment and poverty are associated with interfaces in Belfast. We must, therefore, try to ensure balanced and sustainable economic development that does not just benefit one community; it should benefit all communities. In east Belfast, particularly areas such as Short Strand and Lower Newtownards Road, there is a lot more we need to do to ensure we have the right skill set in the communities such that they can take advantage of the developing Titanic quarter and other opportunities that exist. Since I come not far from that area, I realise educational underachievement is a considerable issue.
On the question on public transport, we have engaged with Translink. It is very keen to do what it can but ultimately it must consider the safety of its drivers. A number of buses have been hijacked. This is an incredibly difficult set of circumstances.
However, the top priority obviously is to keep the roads open. This is a problem in that reports become widespread that every road in Belfast is blocked, but this is not the case. While some main roads are, most of the main arterial routes through the city centre are actually open. It is just that when this situation happens, there are misconceptions, the rumour mill starts and then people do not go out. We must challenge that and state that we have some fantastic retailers and world-class restaurants. Moreover, there will be lots of offers on in Belfast over the next two weekends and we hope this will entice people in. However, we must try to get this issue off the streets. The political parties must all sit down to resolve this issue. The protesters obviously have grievances and the only way to deal with the political problem is to let the political parties come up with a political solution. This is the only way we will tackle this problem effectively and I hope we can continue to do this. We will not solve the problem of reduced footfall in the city centre until the protest issue is resolved. It is not for us to comment on its causes or, if one likes, "the capital P politics" as to the reason this happened, but as business representatives, it is important that we point out the disruption to trade.
Mr. Pat Doherty, MP:
I welcome Mr. Glyn Roberts to the meeting and thank him for his presentation. I have two questions. He spoke about InterTradeIreland, which is one of the six implementation bodies to emerge from the Good Friday Agreement and probably is one of the successful ones. Perhaps he could elaborate on that because, as Deputy Brendan Smith stated earlier, the media image has an impact on Ireland as opposed to Belfast alone. My second question is to ask whether Mr. Roberts's association has had any face-to-face dialogue with Belfast City Council.
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
To take the point about InterTradeIreland, Retail Excellence Ireland and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association have been having a dialogue about how we can develop and promote the retail sector on this island and on what are the policy challenges to retail on both sides of the Border. The dialogue is on how can we develop the retail sector on the island of Ireland and on how can we make the island of Ireland recognised as a major international retail destination. One initiative being considered by our two organisations is the setting up of a North-South retail forum between ourselves, which would engage with InterTradeIreland and the Administrations in Belfast and Dublin to consider what are the challenges in that regard and how we can engage with them. This is an initiative that we, as two business organisations, are taking because in retail terms, there is no such thing as a border. Shoppers will go wherever there is a bargain and that is the reality. The interesting development this Christmas was that although we normally have lots of Southern shoppers coming north into Belfast, this year it was the other way around to some degree. I was talking to retailers in Dublin who had an enormous number of Northerners, including people from Belfast, who were shopping. We must try to establish how we can develop all of that and we are at the very early stages of so doing. I have had an initial meeting with the new chief executive of InterTradeIreland, and obviously we are at the early stages of this initiative. However, its establishment is one of our projects for this year.
In respect of Belfast City Council, the Lord Mayor hosted a meeting last week of all the different agencies and key players in the Lord Mayor's Parlour. We envisage that this campaign fund will be administered by the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau. The bureau will be the lead organisation in this regard and we expect that Belfast City Council also will have a role in funding that campaign. We have had that engagement and obviously it was helpful, in addition, that Belfast City Council struck a zero rate. We are having that dialogue and what we really are trying to do is to bring solutions. We can dwell on this problem all we like but we must focus on solutions. Hopefully, this fund will start to deliver results in the short term and get us that increased footfall we need.
I also have a couple of questions. First, I thank Mr. Glyn Roberts for his attendance today. I do not know whether anyone else has asked this question but what was the situation regarding business in Belfast before these riots started? Had it improved over the course of the peace process? I presume it had but Mr. Roberts might have some figures to hand in this regard. I also was curious about the Titanic exhibition. Has it had a quantifiable impact on retail in Belfast?
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
The reality with regard to the retail sector in 2012 is that consumer confidence certainly still was very low. People are just not spending in the same way they were and as a result, there were huge challenges in 2012. However, Belfast still has a very strong retail offering. We are working hard to ensure that it is a destination and that we have a strong daytime and night-time economy. In addition to a good mix of retail, we have a very successful continental market, which is important in helping to generate footfall because anyone who visits the continental market will tend to go to other shops when they are in the city centre. We are contemplating the development of initiatives such as a Belfast restaurant week or an independent retail week and have been trying to implement lots of ideas. I welcome the focus of Belfast City Council in particular on trying to get more independent retailers into Belfast city centre because they obviously add something different. While it was not without its difficulties, it is a very strong retail offering. Many of our towns and cities in Northern Ireland have very strong retail offers. We still have a reasonably strong independent retail sector that offers something different.
As for the Titanic exhibition, its visitor numbers surpassed all expectations. While it is a fantastic opportunity, we need to do a bit more work to connect the Titanic museum to the rest of the city centre. I have a slight worry that it is almost a destination in itself, in that people might go there but not go into the city centre as much. There is something of a job of work to do in that regard, which I think can be done as it is only a very short walk away. However, the Titanic exhibition is a fantastic thing for Belfast and the centre really is a fantastic building. In addition, there is a lot more work to be done to develop the Titanic Quarter and, hopefully, we will continue to build in that area - for instance, through the work of Northern Ireland Screen - to make sure that more television productions and films are shot there. There is still a lot of potential and I would like to see a lot more work done to develop the Titanic Quarter and to ensure we can match up jobs and skill sets in order that the communities of Short Strand and east Belfast benefit as well. While I acknowledge that they have benefited, we need to do a fair bit more work. However, the Titanic Quarter and its future development is very exciting. We also have the Royal Exchange and fantastic opportunities in the Cathedral Quarter. We are developing the concept of Belfast being a city of quarters, which obviously does not just mean four quarters. The quarters include the Titanic Quarter, the Cathedral Quarter, the Gaeltacht Quarter and Queen's Quarter. They all add to a city of quarters in a city that offers something very different. It is a city that ultimately must realise it is now a shared city. It is a city of many different cultures, not just Unionist and Nationalist. It is a city that I believe has something to offer and we have made good progress in this regard. While I acknowledge the last couple of months have been a setback, members may rest assured that the city will bounce back.
I thank Mr. Roberts. Unless anyone else wishes to add anything, we will bring the session to a close. I note in conclusion that the joint committee appreciates Mr. Roberts's attendance. Were there a blueprint for coming up with a solution to many of the problems on this island, it would already have been rolled out. However, to an extent, the blueprint we have is the Good Friday Agreement.
We take Mr. Roberts's point about the Irish reputation. With the instantaneous nature of media and its international access, it is not just television, one can check on YouTube and one can readily view incidents that have taken place over the past month or more. Something that is happening in Belfast, or Pat Doherty's constituency in Castlederg, or in Derry affects the whole island. That is how seriously we take this particular crisis at the moment.
We do not feel, as a committee, that we have the solutions. However, the committee has agreed to provide an opportunity to community, business and political groups on either side of the Border to offer their observations and solutions. We feel strongly that there is a sense of urgency about this, so we need to act proactively. The committee is a North-South implementation body with a diverse membership. We have an appetite not alone to facilitate but also to be with and show our support for the people of Northern Ireland who are affected by these incidents. In acknowledging that trust has been broken to a degree, there are still trust lines that have been built up since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The committee is confident that things will improve in future, but we are not naive enough to believe that things will work out on their own. There will have to be different interventions including, as Mr. Roberts said, at a political level. People are also working closely at community level and I acknowledge the work of everyone who is doing such work at the interfaces, including religious leaders who have been involved proactively in recent weeks. We wish Mr. Roberts well in his own efforts and campaigns. We are delighted that he came down here today. The committee wishes to demonstrate its support for him and his colleagues.
Over the years, people have said that we cannot be complacent about the peace process. Complacency is back on the agenda but we will certainly not be complacent. We are offering our support and the good offices of this committee as a vehicle or mechanism for other groups to meet with us. We look forward to hearing their suggestions and observations. We will continue to pursue that path in future.
I wish to thank Mr. Roberts for coming here today. It is important to have this opportunity to speak to him. He said that divided societies are bad for business and that is obviously the case. He also made the point that it is a political problem and therefore needs politicians to take hold of the situation and provide solutions. It has been damaging from a business perspective. What does Mr. Roberts think politicians in the South can do to help the situation? When we met the loyalist groups in Belfast, I found it most striking that they felt they had a disconnect from their own politicians to a large extent, and felt they needed outside help to get funding and progress matters. What, in Mr. Roberts's view, is the most immediate thing that can happen to address this matter? I know he is not a politician, but what does he think politicians can do in the short term to try to address these issues? They are societal and macro issues that have been around for a long time, so what can be done in the short term to address them?
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
I am tempted to give a glib response and say, come to Belfast for a pint this weekend. Maybe that does not sound cheeky, but it is a question of getting the word out that Belfast is open for business. It is not a blockaded city and offers fantastic retail outlets and hospitality. One of the reasons I wanted to come down here was to get that message across. Many of my members and those in the hospitality sector rely on trade from the South. It is important that continues to be the case, and vice versa. If there is one message the committee can convey, it is to encourage people to come to Belfast and support traders there by shopping, socialising and enjoying food and drink. It is not necessarily a political thing, but that is what we need the most. We need footfall and people to support us. That is one of the main reasons why I am down here today. If Deputy Conlan and his colleagues can do that, it will be a good job of work.
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
Yes, we are hoping to. The Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau will be the lead organisation in terms of our marketing budget. I have seen some of the images they are hoping to use and it is a strong message whether it will be through 48-sheet print or social media. At its heart, it is appealing to the civic duty of Belfast's citizens. The first stage of this campaign is, first and foremost, about people in Belfast not being put off by the protest. They should come into the city on payday weekends to shop, socialise and enjoy the craic. That is the first stage of the campaign on which there has been some detailed work. A number of different agencies have been involved and there has been a press briefing on the core themes of the campaign. It is a good campaign which we hope will run over the next month or so.
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
It sends out a picture that the whole of the North, including Belfast, is one big riot zone. Nothing could be further from the truth. That is another big challenge but I think we can deal with that. There are big opportunities this year, including Derry city of culture, the G8 meeting and the world police and fire games.
We are also committed to getting the devolution of corporation tax to the Assembly so that we can make ourselves attractive to foreign direct investment. I am worried about the impact this is having on potential investors. When we met with the Secretary of State, we reinforced the need to ensure that the corporation tax issue is pushed up the agenda. If we had that power we would be more competitive. This State has had success in foreign direct investment in difficult times, so if we can get a slice of that we need to do so.
This committee is totally supportive of Mr. Roberts getting the same rate of corporation tax. It would be fully beneficial to the whole island. If there is anything we can do to help Mr. Roberts on that, we will do so.
Mr. Glyn Roberts:
It is very much in the Prime Minister's in-box at the moment. I feel, however, that the issue has been kicked into the long grass, which is disappointing but we will see.
All of the political parties, the entire business community and every business organisation in the North have supported this. The Scottish referendum is a major factor, which it should not be, but that is the reality of where we are.