Primark blaze: businesses and jobs in limbo

Twenty-four hours after the fire at Primark's Bank Buildings store in Belfast City centre, the city takes stock of how to move forward.'Photo Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Twenty-four hours after the fire at Primark's Bank Buildings store in Belfast City centre, the city takes stock of how to move forward.'Photo Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

There is uncertainty tonight for the future of businesses and employees impacted by the blaze which destroyed Primark in Belfast city centre this week.

Affected traders are facing mounting bills and have no clarity on when they can reopen.

The fire service this evening continued to douse the burning embers of the fire which dominated the city skyline on Tuesday, while engineers attempted to get a sense of how safe the building is and when adjacent businesses can begin trading once again.

Trade union USDAW, which represents all 350 Primark staff affected, said the workers had only been assured of pay until the end of this week.

Organiser Michala Lafferty said that further discussions will take place over the next few days to agree “what happens next”.

She said: “Our members are extremely distressed and concerned as they now enter a period of uncertainty.

“The company has reassured me that the welfare and job security of the staff is their priority.”

It is estimated some 20 businesses in the vicinity of Primark on Castle Street and Royal Avenue had an enforced closure yesterday.

Neither the Fire Service, Belfast City Council, the Chamber of Commerce nor Retail NI could tonight give any indication as to when the exclusion zone around the burnt-out shell might be lifted.

Many adjacent businesses will remain unable to trade while their normal bills continue to mount up.

The fire service said a 45-metre exclusion zone remains in place and that there was “structural collapse within the building” yesterday.

“The exterior of the building remains structurally intact,” it said. “We are continuing to work closely with engineers from Belfast City Council to determine the structural integrity and safety of the building. Once this has been completed the cause of the fire will be probed.”

One employee in an adjacent business said they had been briefed internally that they might be able to return to their workplace on Friday, subject to safety assessments.

“That is potentially the case but there is still uncertainty about whether that will happen,” she said.

The Chamber of Commerce said the security cordon today will be on Castle Street at the former West Cafe just past Fountain Street; on Donegall Place from JD Sport to Zara; on Royal Avenue at Santander, Bank Street to the rear of Tesco Metro and Castle Place past McDonalds and DV8.

Andy Rea runs a restaurant behind Primark and was hoping to open last night.

“Everybody in Belfast has a spirit of bounce-back-ability,” he told UTV. “You wonder how you did trade back in the Troubles but now we are out of it ... so now I am just thinking, let’s get open, let’s get people fed, let’s show the hospitality and let’s show the city the spirit we have.”

But his business partner Bob McCoubrey owns a pizza parlour around the corner in Castle Street and was not able to open, having to cancel bookings last night.

“Castle Street was struggling even before this,” he said. “We have had anti-social problems. A lot of the small businesses here were struggling financially week to week, so a lot of them won’t be able to take this. It could be the final blow for some of them.”

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts welcomed news from Land & Property Services that it is willing to discuss extensions for rates payments and that some traders may be eligible for a Hardship Relief Scheme.

“The key message following this meeting is that despite this tragedy, Belfast city centre is still open for business and that it will bounce back from this,” he said.

However, one concern he said, was that Primark drew major footfall and this loss might have an impact on other traders.