Collaboration is key to unlocking Belfast's night-time economy

St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Belfast were a spectacular success this year. Picture: Hugh Russell
Chris McCracken

BELFAST’S St Patrick’s Day celebrations were a spectacular success. Traditional Irish music taking place across 40 venues, a free concert at Custom House Square, and promotions in almost every pub to celebrate.

The festivities proved the vibrancy of our night-time economy, for it to thrive long-term we need to focus on more than calendar events. It needs to be considered, curated, and funded as an entity in its own right.

Night-time economy is all activity - including arts & culture, sport, retail, entertainment, and hospitality taking place between 6pm and 6am. At LQ BID, we play a crucial role in enhancing the this across our district, with increased animation and lighting, dedicated policing for the area and delivery of a £500,000 public realm revitalisation programme.

We need to think imaginatively to restore economic vitality to Belfast. The offer should be diverse, open to all, and fit naturally with the city’s defining feature – the warm Belfast welcome.

Unfortunately, we sometimes take this for granted and fail to invest in those ensuring our night-time economy functions. For example, every weekend amazing individuals volunteer their nights to support a safer city centre. In a vulnerable position? The SoS bus can get you home. Need to speak to someone? Street pastors are available. At risk near the river? Community rescue is at hand. In comparison to their value, these organisations function with minimal public support. A situation that should fundamentally change.

Our people make our city, but architecture and distinct sense of place come a close second. Take the Linen Quarter which benefits from wonderful Victorian buildings, converted into atmospheric pubs and restaurants. We should celebrate these but do more to support our heritage - like restoring the listing building fund.

In the past five years, we’ve enhanced Linen Quarter with installation of colourful new vinyls, enhanced outdoor seating, planting and new street art – regeneration needs to remain a focus across the entire city to drive footfall, support our businesses and drive investment to the area.

Belfast’s night-time offer compares well against any city in the UK and Ireland, but it needs to evolve with our changing environment. We’re a city of students – more visible than ever with the stunning Ulster University campus and high-quality housing.

But many students do not drink or go clubbing. Likewise, many international visitors have different tastes and expectations. Do we have enough late-night cafes? Is there a market for more vegan restaurants? Can we provide public subsidy to open museums, libraries, and galleries at night.

Linen Quarter itself is home to some of Northern Ireland’s most iconic entertainment venues including Ulster Hall and the Grand Opera House. Perhaps Thursday evenings should be designated as Belfast’s culture night.

To grow our evening economy, we need to transform people’s ability to move round our city with wide well-lit boulevards or safe segregated cycle lanes to help people explore. Streamlined licensing for taxi drivers to assist recruitment, with premium after hours fares that make provision of late-night services attractive. Public subsidy for major train and bus routes for easy movement in and out of the city centre, recognising that judicious investment in transport will deliver an even greater economic return.

Finally, these initiatives need effective management. Belfast should appoint a recognised Ambassador to work alongside existing mechanisms, co-ordinate the night-time economy, and liaise with professionals across diverse sectors to ensure concerns are understood and translated into policy and operational practice.

The night-time economy is not just for local benefit, but of international importance within a fast-evolving context. Support for calendar events remains a key building block, but if Belfast is to thrive we need vision, strategic investments, and most of all, a renewed appreciation for our people and sense of place.

:: Chris McCracken is managing director of Linen Quarter Business Improvement District.