Retailers across Northern Ireland are keeping their fingers crossed for a last-minute rush of shoppers following almost three weeks of street protests and road closures.
Many shops have reported a slump in pre-Christmas sales and claimed legions of expected customers have stayed at home to avoid the unrest.
The protests began after Belfast City Council voted to limit the flying of the Union Flag over the City Hall to designated days only.
Another demonstration has been planned for Belfast city centre this afternoon on what is traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
Glyn Roberts of the NI Independent Retail Trade Association said the run-up to Christmas was vital to the survival of some stores.
Speaking last night, the retailers’ representative said he was out and about in Belfast and was happy to see large crowds despite the protests.
“It has been a tough 2012 but it looks like people are not going to let the protests put them off.
“We have got Saturday, Sunday and Monday to go and I would encourage people to get behind their local traders and support them. Not just the shops but the bars and restaurants too,” he said.
Mr Roberts said he fully understood that emotions were running high over the flag issue but repeated his call for protest organisers to “consider the potential impact this may have on our town centres at this crucial time of year.”
Last night, almost 40 separate protests took place across Belfast and all of the city’s Metro Bus services were suspended for over an hour with the exception of the Falls Road route.
Social media websites listed up to 60 protests across Northern Ireland with most starting around 6pm.
Demonstrators brought traffic to a standstill at Broadway and the Hope Street area of south Belfast, the Upper Newtownards Road, Templemore Avenue and Castlereagh Road in the east, and the M2 off slip to the Shore Road and the Limestone Road in the north of the city.
The Ormeau Road in Belfast was also closed in both directions at the Lagan bridge.
A similar protest in Carrickfergus of around 250 people took place at the castle roundabout, with others in Bangor, Banbridge and Ballyclare.
Protest organisers had called for a “nationwide” day of demonstrations on Friday as the campaign entered its 19th day.
By around 7.15pm most of the affected roads had been reopened and the buses in Belfast began running as normal.
However, protestors continued to block the Lower Newtownards Road and were given a police warning to disperse around 8pm.
Police dog handlers were deployed in an effort to have the road reopened and the area was reported to be quiet on Friday night.
Although the vast majority of protests over the 19 days have been peaceful, several have resulted in attacks on police and property, including Alliance Party offices.
Last Monday night, a small number of angry protestors entered the town hall in Carrickfergus and confronted councillors attending a meeting before they were removed by police.
On Wednesday, a new Unionist Forum was announced by the two main unionist party leaders aimed at resolving the widespread demonstrations against perceived erosions in British sovereignty.
Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt said the forum will “seek to engage with the entire unionist community” to address issues of concern.
A statement issued following the meeting said: “The forum would not be a decision-making body but would act as a body within which a consensus might be built and implementation of any actions left to individual organisations. It would seek to engage positively with representatives from all sections of the Northern Ireland community.”
The forum is not expected to meet until early in the new year.
Victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer has been invited to speak at dozens of the protest rallies. He says the City Hall flag row is “the straw that broke the camel’s back” after other controversial decisions elsewhere.
Last night Jamie Bryson of United Protestant Voice (UPV) – one of the groups organising flag protests – said he could appreciate how the wider public could be becoming weary of the on-going disruption.
However, he said the blame for any inconvenience lay with republicans.
“I think it is important to acknowledge that it wasn’t the Protestant people who brought this issue in the mouth of Christmas. This was started by Sinn Fein and the blame needs to be put at the door of where it belongs,” he said.
On the future of the protests, Mr Bryson said: “I think it is important to look at a strategy and I think it is important to look at an end-game.
“The protests are the property of the people and it has to be the people that decide – it cannot be dictated by any one person or group.”
TUV leader Jim Allister has put forward a set of proposals he believes could help resolve Province-wide “alienation” of flag protestors.
They include the Union Flag being flown from all civic buildings across Northern Ireland on a minimum number of designated days, being flown over Stormont when MLAs are sitting and the flag flying from the Belfast city cenotaph daily.
Mr Allister also called for the designated days to be extended to include “obvious and significant dates” like July 1, July 12 and Ulster Day, September 28.
Meanwhile, two people were arrested after reports of disorder in east Belfast during the early hours of Friday morning.
Police said a group of about 15 men attacked houses in the Lower Newtownards Road area. One family has now left their home as a result of the attack.
A 27-year-old man, who was arrested for possession of an offensive weapon, is due in court in January. A 20-year-old man has also been arrested for riot and is due to appear before Belfast Magistrates Court this morning.
PSNI Superintendent John McCaughan said: “Tensions are heightened; however, we would ask that people take a step back and consider the wider implications of engaging in any criminal behaviour.”