Belfast nightlife blighted by Troubles, drugs and Covid, but rebirth is on cards

The Troubles, Covid and a rising menace of drugs have blighted Belfast's nightlife.

New research by the Consumer Council, reported by UTV's Up Close, also reveals a majority of people are concerned for their safety when hitting the town.

And with current licensing laws and a lack of transport options, business faces an uphill battle to attract people.

But the pubs, clubs, restaurants and others businesses which light up the night in the city have come together and are working on how to make Belfast one of the best destinations for a night out.

UTV current affairs programme Up Close spoke to key figures in the hospitality and transport industries, councillors, consumer and business groups and campaigners to try to unpick the issues having an impact on Belfast’s burgeoning nightlife scene, and what their thoughts are on solutions.

Damien Corr, of Destination CQ, one of the city's business improvement districts (BID) which represents around 700 organisations, said its research found people spent £150 on average when out in the town over a long weekend.

"Even if they are only spending a fraction of that, you can see the value," he said.

Three of the city's BIDs are working on employing their own nighttime champion to work to reform the city.

"We have decided to put our money where our mouth is," Damien added.

"We have a modest amount of money… I dunno if we will call it a czar... Maybe a nighttime champion. But that needs to happen soon."

Publican Willie Jack has been in the trade for five decades. He said a "big personality" was needed.

"We need someone that can pull all the services together... make the city safe, that's the biggest thing they can do. We need a night time czar."

Boyd Sleator, of Free the Night, a campaign group lobbying for better nightlife, said there was a lot to do to open the city up to more people and any night time champion had to be independent.

That includes bringing in new "young curators" into the city, relaxing licensing laws, reforming transport.

"And really consider the benefits of culture in a post conflict society in a shared city like Belfast," he said, "And it is very do-able".

Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said Belfast needed to build on its heritage to offer a unique product to visitors.

"We do have the building blocks and we have the people for it, but it comes down to the infrastructure," he said. The lack of taxis to get home was found to be an issue for people considering heading out into Belfast. Translink said it wanted to expand its seasonal nighttime offerings to all year. but needed the investment. SDLP councillor Seamus de Faoite estimates around £150,000 a year is needed to run night time services.

"When you look at the multiplier effect of what that does to the nighttime economy- it is huge. We want this to happen."

Responding, Infrastructure Minister John O'Dowd said scheduling was a matter for the public transport operator.

Taxi driver numbers have also had an effect. Before Covid there were around 1,400 drivers. That number is now closer to 1,000 and it is half the number there were a decade ago.

William McCausland says the test for drivers sets a high bar and it is an obstacle for many. Around two thirds fail it.

Minister John O'Dowd said the 80% pass mark for the test was already the lowest of all vocational theory tests - and to reduce it would “undermine the purpose of the test”.

You can watch UTV's Up Close here.

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