Businesses in Belfast are counting the cost of a wave of riots they fear could undermine a fledgling tourist boom and scare foreign investors away from a city desperate to shake off its reputation for violence. Matt Cowan reports from Northern Ireland
Opened in spring as part of a broad push to lure tourists to Belfast, where the Titanic was built, this visitor centre has been extraordinarily successful - but as violent protests continue to erupt at flashpoints within the city, it's getting ever more peaceful inside Titanic Belfast. SOUNDBITE: Kat Campbell "It's really quiet. It's almost like having the whole exhibition to ourselves." In recent weeks, Belfast has experienced a number of violent standoffs. The protests - touched off when councillors at City Hall voted to limit the number of days Britain's union flag flies there - have not abated. Retailers and restaurants say the impact on business has been disastrous. Michael Deane owns a chain of local restaurants. SOUNDBITE: Michael Deane, Owner of Deane's Restaurant chain saying (English) "There was nobody out on Friday night. The city centre was brought to its knees on Saturday afternoon and this just shows you what these people can do." The Confederation of British Industry estimates disruptions caused by the protests have cost businesses in Belfast up to 15 million pounds, or roughly 24 million dollars. Ian Coulter is the chairman of the CBI in Northern Ireland. SOUNDBITE: Ian Coulter, CBI Northern Ireland Chairman saying (English): "This is going to cause a longterm image issue which we have to rebuild and repair. I think we have a great opportunity to do that this year, if the protests are stopped and if they don't flare up again." PTC Since the Good Friday peace accord was signed in 1998 the business environment here had been steadily improving. Foreign visitor numbers had quadrupled and 12 thousand new jobs were created through foreign investment between 2007 and 2011. This year was shaping up to be another breakthrough year with G8 leaders meeting in June intended to showcase just how far things had come. At the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont, the province's minister responsible for trade and investment Arlene Foster stressed the violence has been isolated, and is being dealt with. SOUNDBITE: Arlene Foster, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment saying (English) "It's a very contained and isolated area that has been affected. And we will want to help those people and indeed tomorrow I'm having a meeting with some of those people who have been affected so that I can hear directly from them, to hear their concerns." Local restaurant owner Michael Deane says if things don't improve soon, he'll be forced to close restaurants. SOUNDBITE: Michael Deane, Owner of Deane's Restaurant chain saying (English) "We'll survive as long as we can, but if there's no business and no people coming into to the building, the thing will be we'll have to cut our cloth." A harsh light has been cast on this city, and few here need reminding how difficult it is to change perceptions.