‘A late night bus and train should be for life, not just for Christmas’

Belfast’s new night czar Michael Stewart has put late night transport at the top of his agenda

Belfast's new 'night czar' Michael Stewart. PICTURE by MAL McCANN

It would be difficult to find someone better suited to being Belfast’s first night czar.

A hospitality director and bar consultant by trade, Michael Stewart is a former president of Belfast Chamber and has sat on more boards than the average surfer.

“At the interview for the job I said I think I’ve done a 38 year apprenticeship for this.

“People have said this is the stuff you’re doing day and daily, just as a matter of fact just through your directorship of Common Market, but also people ring we to ask me to ask advice.”

The concept of a night czar, sometimes styled as a night mayor, has spread throughout the UK and Ireland in the post-Covid period.

Nine new night mayors are being appointed in the Republic. Across the water, Edinburgh, Bristol and the West Midlands have joined London and Manchester in creating new champions of the night-time economy.

Unlike most of those positions however, Michael Stewart’s role is part-time.

He will receive just £12,500 per year to advocate, communicate and network on behalf of Belfast’s night-time economy.

Compare that to Amy Lamé's pay packet in London, where she now commands a salary of £132,000.

Across the border, the nine new night mayors will be full-time and paid between €55,000 and €71,000 per year.

But Michael is quick to see the advantage of being funded by three of Belfast’s BIDs (business improvement districts).

“I will have to challenge government and I will have to challenge council. And those other folk are probably in a difficult situation, because they are employed by councils in many cases.”

The hospitality veteran has been inundated with messages of goodwill since his appointment was announced two weeks ago.

“It was a frenzy,” he says.

Walking around Belfast’s bars and restaurants with Michael Stewart, it’s easy to see where that goodwill comes from.

From glad-handing business owners and managers by name, he is soon over at the bar or at the kitchen door, speaking to staff he knows and has helped in some way down the years.

But he’s not naïve, he knows that the positive sentiment will soon give way to expectation.

“The honeymoon will soon be over and people will want action.”

One of his biggest challenges will be managing expectations.

It would be folly to assume that one person paid £12,500 a year for part-time advocacy role will be able to achieve in a short space of time what numerous well-staffed and well-funded business lobbying groups have been working on for years.

Michael is realistic about what can be achieve, but it has not dimmed his ambition.

“My vision is to make Belfast the best night-time economy on the island of Ireland.”

He makes no bones about it, night-time public transport is top of the list.

“It’s huge, it’s absolutely number one,” he says.

“Late night transport connectivity is key. That includes buses, trains, taxis and any other form of transport that can get people into the city and out, safely.”

And he reveals Translink are on board.

“We are pushing an open door there. Translink obviously has to sort out its side from the point of view of manpower and timetables.

“And obviously money to fund it.”

He has also met with the Licensed Taxi Association, and admits he was astounded with the issues the industry faces.

“There’s an absolute lack of drivers for sure. But the reason. But they can’t get enough drivers through the system with DfI as it currently sits.”

He said the taxi sector is very much in favour of night-time public transport.

“They want the buses to succeed, so it takes the pressure off them.”

Belfast's new night czar, Michael Stewart. PICTURE: MAL McCANN

Pedestrianisation and pavement café licensing is another area he’s focused on.

“Arthur Street, Cornmarket and Ann Street are pedestrianised and it’s not by chance they happen to be some of the busiest streets in Belfast.”

But he said the momentum behind outdoor hospitality built up the pandemic has now subsided.

“Belfast City Council were very keen to get people outside. Regulations and legislation were relaxed somewhat. Now that’s gone.”

One of the biggest problems is the condition requiring that outdoor fixtures and seating cannot be permanent and must be able to be capable of being removed within 20 minutes.

“If we want to be a modern European café society, there has to be a flexible, common sense approach to pavement café licensing.”

The safety of vulnerable adults, particularly women and girls, is another issue he’s concerned about.

He has heard the stories of young women recount their fears on getting home after a night out.

“This isn’t about people hassling them when they’re in a bar. This is about when they’re trying to get home and they feel vulnerable because now they’re having to walk.

“Translink is the biggest piece of this jigsaw for me,” he adds.

Translink successfully ran late-night bus, coach and train services in the lead up to Christmas 2022.

It included metro services in both Belfast and Derry, as well as Goldliner, Urby, and train services.

The 2023 operation was however impacted by industrial action.

“If we can get the night buses back on, the taxis will have less pressure and have more capacity to go to the areas where buses can’t go,” says the czar.

“But it has to happen soon. A late night bus and train is for life, not for Christmas.”