Northern Ireland

‘It used to be bombs and bullets, it’s now just a dump and derelict’ - Sunflower owner Pedro Donald on why he’s escaping Belfast after 40 years behind bars

Owner of the iconic  Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast.
PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN
PEDRO DONALD SUNFLOWER BAR Owner of the iconic Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

ONE of Belfast’s most-established publicans, Pedro Donald (58), has spoken of why he’s leaving behind two successful businesses for a new life in Holland.

Opening up the shutters of the Sunflower’s now-famous green security cage on Wednesday morning, near the former offices of the Irish News on Donegall Street, he shares that his grandfather Tim O’Connor used to work for the paper as a typesetter after the Second World War.

Born in Argentina to Belfast parents, Pedro later pulled his first pint in February 1984 at The King’s Head in Balmoral (now The Doyen) and has been in the hospitality trade ever since.

“There was a f****** war going on at that time. During all my time going through school we just thought ‘this will never end, it’s just the way it is,’” he said.

Previously managing the John Hewitt between 1999-2007, his independent streak became apparent when he outlawed the sale of Coca-Cola after taking issue with the company’s treatment of trade unions.



When he opened the Sunflower in 2012, he also kept Guinness off the menu simply for being told it wasn’t possible to run a pub without it.

Proving his point, last year the Sunflower was named pub of the year by the Campaign for Real Ale’s Northern Ireland branch.

Before successfully facing down the threat of the venue’s demolition from planners in 2015, he also expanded his business by opening up the popular American Bar in the Sailortown area of the city.

So why, when business is clearly booming, is he walking away?

Owner of the iconic  Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast.
PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN
PEDRO DONALD SUNFLOWER BAR Owner of the iconic Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

Over a coffee in the upstairs bar, a popular spot for music and comedy gigs, he says that while he’s proud of his legacy he has quite simply had enough of Belfast.

“It’s just like groundhog day. I just found myself complaining about things more and more,” he said.

“This or that isn’t working, bureaucracy, you just can’t get anything done.

“Then we see the strikes and there’s no government, on and on it goes. I just realised one day, rather than complaining about it, that ‘f***, I don’t have to live here.’

“So, I’m not going to. I’ll leave the ship behind me, which might sound a bit selfish but I’ve done my bit.”



The Sunflower officially changes hands next week, being taken on by two managers that have worked with him from the start.

“I didn’t put it on the market because God knows who would have bought it or what it would have become,” he said.

“It won’t be a Wetherspoons, I’d have sooner closed it.”

Owner of the iconic  Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast.
PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN
PEDRO DONALD SUNFLOWER BAR Owner of the iconic Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

In December, the American Bar also passed over to fellow publican and events manager Tomás Gorman.

“It was the first week of February in 1984 that I started working, so exactly 40 years I’ve been pouring pints,” Pedro said.

“You would think after 40 years we’d be in a better place, but we’re not. The state of Belfast is equally as bad, but in a different way.

“It used to be bombs and bullets, it’s now just a dump and derelict. It’s filthy, it’s drugs ridden, crime, homelessness.

“All cities have these problems, but I would like to think that other cities are doing something about it. We don’t seem to be doing anything about it.

“We’ve no government, and even if it does come back it’s only a matter of time before it collapses again.

“It’s a cert, you could go to the bookies and make a fortune.”

Owner of the iconic  Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast.
PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN
PEDRO DONALD SUNFLOWER BAR Owner of the iconic Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

Another reason to leave, he said, is the loss of optimism the city experienced at the end of the Troubles.

“The only good period I think Belfast has had, in the last 100 years, was between the ceasefires at end of the 1990s and the recession around 2007.

“Things were getting done, places were opening and there was genuine optimism.”

Calling it an easy decision to sell up, he adds: “I cannot wait till next week. I’ll be out that door and you’ll not be able to catch me.

“Even though I love this pub, I love the people and the whole arts community…I’ve done my bit.”

Having cycled to work that morning through cycle lanes covered in broken glass and blocked by cars, he said Amsterdam’s bicycle culture, arts scene, football and direct flights to Belfast were a major draw.

While too young to retire, he said that voluntary work in the arts sector will most likely become his new focus.

Still house hunting, he has remote viewings set up for the afternoon in Amsterdam or the neighbouring city of Haarlem.

“There’s trains every eight minutes between the two. And that’s another reason for going, things work,” he said.

“If you go to the doctor, they’ll see you. If you turn up for a bus, it will be there unlike Belfast.”

While finding success in Belfast, he explains: “Getting anything done just takes ten-times longer than it should do because nobody makes any decisions.

“Then there’s stupid decisions. On Royal Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the city, there’s a drugs rehab facility.

“That’s very important work, but not on the high street. It’s madness, who makes these decisions?

“So now all around here you have kids at university and they have to walk past these needles, it’s f****** madness.

“It is important work they do, but don’t put it on the bloody high street.”

Owner of the iconic  Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast.
PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN
PEDRO DONALD SUNFLOWER BAR Owner of the iconic Sunflower Bar in Belfast , speaks to The Irish News on leaving Belfast. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

This refers to Extern’s Street Injectors Support Service, where staff engage with street injectors in Belfast to collect and dispose of inappropriately discarded injecting equipment.

Before navigating the pandemic, one of Pedro’s biggest fights came in 2015 when the Northside Regeneration Scheme brought with it the threat of demolition.

“That’s why we opened the American Bar. There was going to be a whole redevelopment of this part of the city,” he recalls.

“They called it a consultation, when we were invited to look at the plans in the library beside us, but it wasn’t a consultation. You were just f****** told.

“One of the officials just told me matter of fact ‘the pub will be knocked down.’

“That’s how I heard about it. I immediately just thought ‘that’s not going to happen.’”

Banding together with other businesses from solicitors to decorators, he said: “We made the right decision the pub would lead the campaign. If you want to get people off their arses and rallying, threaten to knock down their pub.

“It really took off. We had meetings with Stormont and City Hall. The Department actually withdrew from the plan, so the planners lost the power to knock us down.

“I’ll never know why.”

Still intending to visit his 87-year-old father in Belfast regularly, he said being single and not having children has afforded him the freedom for his sudden change.

“I know I’m very lucky. A number of people I’ve spoken to would love to do the same thing but they can’t.”

With the recent expectation that Stormont may return, Pedro said he holds out little hope of progress on the hill.

“I might as well talk to that wall. I wouldn’t waste my breath on them, it’s absolutely pointless. They all have their own agendas and it doesn’t matter what’s going on around them.

Despite multiple enquiries about his farewell party, Pedro says the silent exit of an Irish goodbye is much more his style.

“There’s been an unbelievable number of people asking me ‘where’s the party?’ But no, I’m out the back door and away.

“I’ve already said to the staff, ‘the pub will carry on as it is and you won’t even notice me missing’”.