THE STORMONT Executive has thrown its weight behind an advertising campaign to help Belfast traders who have suffered over the Union flag protest.
Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said on Wednesday the government is funding a £600,000 advertising campaign to encourage shoppers and revellers to come back into Belfast.
He said the aim was to “get people back into the city centre and into businesses”.
Protests have been held since councillors voted on 3 December to limit the number of days the union flag flies over Belfast City Hall.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) estimates the protests have cost businesses up to £15m.
Mr Wilson said the money would be made available through the department of enterprise.
“There will be immediate money made available for a campaign which I think is going to start next week,” he said.
“We’re taking immediate action and then we’re looking in the medium-term around coming up the major events in the summer, we can do some more to promote businesses across Northern Ireland.”
But loyalists protesting over the removal of the flag have countered the view of the traders saying their rallies did not affect trading in Belfast.
It has produced poster which saying a “one hour weekly protest” didn’t ruin their Christmas.”
The poster reads: “BELFAST SHOP KEEPERS.
“DON’T blame the 1 hour weekly protest.
“BLAME the online shopping.
“BLAME your high prices.
“BLAME the weather.
“BLAME the nationalist MLAs.
“BLAME the Allliance Party.
“A 1 hour weekly protest does not bring your shops to its needs.”
Earlier this month, Belfast City Council agreed a rates freeze to help traders affected by the flags trouble but ruled out a reduction or payment holiday.
“Some of these businesses are talking about laying off 20 or 30 people – even if it was possible legally to give them a rates holiday for say three months, that might mean about £3,000 or £4,000 for them.
“That’s not going to save those jobs, what you need is people coming in and spending money, on a daily basis and that’s why it was the organisations themselves who said, look what we want is some help with an immediate campaign to get people back in and spending money so that our members can pay their bills,” Mr Wilson said.
“All we can do is say to protesters ‘don’t destroy the economy of your own country’.”
The minister said it was about adopting a “two-pronged approach”.
“Let’s promote the city but let’s also appeal to those who are engaging in these destructive protests to exercise some restraint and find other ways of expressing their anger and their frustration.”
Mr Wilson said it was part of an ongoing series of steps to help businesses in Northern Ireland.
The CBI said people had been put off coming into Belfast city centre as a result of the protests.
It estimated the cost to businesses in the city from the protests was between £10m and £15m, but there could be additional economic damage from discouraging potential tourists and investors.
The CBI said in the run-up to Christmas there were demonstrations in the city centre on Saturdays, a peak period for traders and takings were down by about 40%.