CALLS have been made to the organisers of flag protests across Northern Ireland, to minimise the impact on local shopping during the vital Christmas period.
After the violence which spilled into the busy shopping precinct of Ballymena on Thursday night and another protest planned outside City Hall on Saturday, fears are growing that shoppers will stay at home.
Glyn Roberts, who represents independent traders in Northern Ireland, said the next few days could prove pivotal to the survival of some stores.
“Saturday [today] is one of the biggest shopping days of the year – coming up to Christmas – and there is a real fear out there that shoppers will be put off coming into our city centre and town centres because of these protests,” said Mr Roberts.
“These next few days are crucial for some shops, having a good Christmas period will be vital to their very survival.
“I would appeal to all those who are organising the protests to think about local traders and the difficulties that they are facing in these tough economic times.”
He added: “I fully understand that this is a very emotional issue for a lot of people across the country and they have every right to protest and make their feelings known.
“But when they are organising the protests I would urge them to take into consideration the potential impact this may have on our town centres at this crucial time of year.”
The Belfast Chamber of Commerce has also expressed concern at the impact of today’s protest, arranged to take place at 2pm.
Flag protests are also due to take place in Kent and Liverpool tomorrow, as well as Lambeg this evening.
Joe Jordan from the Chamber of Commerce represents more than 400 businesses who he said are keen to make the most of the pre-Christmas trade after what has been a difficult year financially.
Mr Jordan said he wished the City Council had held the debate over the flag in January or Feburary, and not during a key trading period.
Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers has urged the organisers of the protest planned to take place at City Hall to postpone it until January, or if not to keep it as peaceful as possible.
“I would appeal to the organisers to postpone it until January,” he said.
“This Saturday is one of the biggest shopping days in the calendar.
“I have spoken to retailers who are concerned that people may decide to stay at home.
“I would urge those in charge to make it peaceful and not allow it to develop into violence.”
However, leading loyalist Jim Wilson said it is too late to call off the demonstration.
Mr Wilson said there was no overall organiser of the protests, which have taken place all over Northern Ireland this week.
He said many were arranged via social networking websites such as Facebook, and added there was a strong anger within loyalism.
“The community I come from has been compromised out,” he said. “There are continual attempts to erode things that they [republicans] know mean so much to this community. There is a constant chipping away, there is only so much this community can take.”
Mr Wilson also condemned the violence at the protests, and said he was sorry to see East Belfast MP Naomi Long had been threatened.
“Loyalism should be about peace and respect,” he said.
In a statement the PSNI said they will be “working hard to ensure the safety of communities across Northern Ireland during what will be one of the busiest shopping days of the year”.