Downpatrick business people met at the Downpatrick RGU to discuss how to move forward
A packed meeting was held at the Downpatrick RGU on Wednesday night for invited local businesses to discuss the impact of the flood in the town centre and to find a way forward.
The room was filled with palpable anger, sadness, exhaustion, anxiety and fear for what lies ahead for many businesses and families affected by the flood directly and indirectly.
The meeting was chaired by Paul McCartan. He welcomed everyone and thanked the Downpatrick RGU for the use of their meeting room and then introduced Mal McGrady to speak first as chair of the Downpatrick Regeneration Group and also sitting on the top table were Morgan Morrison, of Doc’s Fish and Chips, Bartley Murphy, Murphy’s Bar, Paul McCartan representing McCartan Sports and the shoe shop, and Eamon Connolly from Newry BID who has been involved with the Newry Flood.
The meeting unfolded with an address from Mal McGrady who described the loses to local businesses as ‘catastrophic’.
He explained that NMD Council were currently doing a survey asking business people for details how the flood has impacted on them. This information will be fed to the NI Office to help quantify the scale of the problem and make claims assessments a bit easier. He emphasised it was important for everyone impacted to get their information recorded by Council Officials as soon as possible.
Mr McGrady added: “Some of the information may be commercially sensitive and that is the reason why it is best for the Council to handle this.
On Wednesday evening there was concern at how much rates relief there would be for businesses but that has now been clarified (at 100%) for businesses affected.
Eamon Connolly of Newry BID presented the experiences in Newry which was flooded days before Downpatrick. He said that shops and property were damaged, stock was lost, and income ruptured or unpaid, and some staff were now unemployed. “Whatever we get, it is not likely to be near enough to help us fully recover. There may be some business who just cannot re-open?”
Paul McCartan said “We are not likely to get everything that we would like.”
South Down MP Chris Hazzard said: “There are 500+ staff affected in the Newry Mourne and Down area. We are expecting the Secretary of State to come down to this area and announce what package he is offering, but comparing it to the packages as in England, it will be no-where near what we really need.
“As people clear their premises and examine the water dame, the real extent of the flood will become more apparent.”
Bartley Murphy of Murphy’s Bar and Restaurant said: “The damage uncovered gets worse by the day. And there is the problem of contamination to deal with. You need to be very careful what you salvage.
Patrick Brown MLA said: “There is a £1.5 billion black hole in the public purse at the moment, but we do need to see an initial cash injection into the stricken areas as soon as possible.”
Chris Hazzard emphasised that “a sum of up to £5000 was mentioned but that would hardly get a new door for a shop. It will take tens of thousands. We need to see a full assessments of the needs of the business community.”
Chris Hazzard also noted that given the stressful, traumatic losses that some business people are experiencing or may experience, it may be necessary to introduce a counselling service to help maintain mental health.
There was a discussion about what had caused the flooding in Newry and Eamon Connolly added that “we are talking to structural engineers at the moment about the Newry situation.”
It was suggested by Cllr Cadogan Enright that “the River Quoile itself needs to be dredged to allow for better flow of water out on both sides of the Belfast Road Bridge and other structures lower downstream.” Clean the Quoile campaigner Stephen O’Hare also supported dredging the River Quoile.
As the discussion moved on, there was a general feeling in the room that local businesses could not refit and restock their businesses with confidence just in case flooding happened again.
Bartley Murphy claimed the flood was a result of “a blockage in the River Quoile at the different bridges showing the river needed to be cleared”.
Downpatrick Jeweller Colman Magennis said: “It has rained heavily for days. The ground was saturated and the water had no-where to go.”
Colin McGrath MLA added: “There has been very heavy rain and raised water levels and it has shown up the cracks in our infrastructure. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again from Newry to Downpatrick. We must all work together on this issue.”
Nicholas McCrickard, manager of the County Down Rural Community Network, suggested setting up a fund that people can raise funds for and contribute and offered the services of the bone fide CDRCN.
However, Bartley Murphy said that people were already hurting financially and that could just make matters worse for many people coming up to Christmas. Patrick Brown MLA however, agreed it was “a good, positive idea”.
Bartley Murphy then explained that a ‘judicial review’ was being sought at the moment against the Department of Infrastructure and added: “We need to establish what caused this flooding and important questions will be asked.
A Downpatrick solicitor representing a client affected by the flood said: “The issue has been going on for more than two decades and there have been issues. Concerns have now been raised. It all needs to go under the legal microscope and bring everything to the surface with urgency.”
Colman Magennis said that “as businesses move to temporary places and many change their opening hours etc, the public need to know what is going on in terms of what the traders are offering, when and where.”
“Cllr Oonagh Hanlon said: “There is a lot going on in the background on this at the moment. We are open to any idea that may help to improve the situation.”
Again Paul McCartan said: “It was vital now more than ever that we have a viable chamber of commerce in Downpatrick”.
As Paul closed the meeting, Noel Traynor who had always suffered the worst of the Downpatrick flooding, said: “The people of Downpatrick have been tremendous and supportive. It is heartening that they are behind the business community.”
The meeting ended with everyone hoping that the Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris would deliver a suitable financial package for flood victims.