After 40 years of pulling pints, publican Pedro Donald hasn’t pulled his punches about the state of Belfast city centre.
Reflecting on his time in the trade, Mr Donald says Belfast ought to be demonstrably better than it was in the 1980s but, in his forthright view, is not.
“It used to be bombs and bullets,” he says. “It’s now just a dump and derelict. It’s filthy, it’s drugs-ridden…” Crime and homelessness are other problems he highlights, and he contrasts the investment made around the new Ulster University campus and the students now living in the area with the “madness” of drugs being taken on the street: “You have kids at university and they have to walk past these needles…”
Mr Donald, who had a long association with the John Hewitt on Donegall Street before opening the Sunflower on Union Street in 2012 and the American Bar in Sailortown in 2015, has become so fed up that he is leaving for a new life in Amsterdam.
Anyone familiar with the city centre will not be shocked by Mr Donald’s vivid description. What was a slow decline in areas such as North Street and Royal Avenue accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic. These were until recently thriving thoroughfares but have been allowed to slide into decrepitude, uninviting and desolate canyons of dereliction punctuated by hoardings, weeds and scaffolding.
Belfast City Council and its councillors may not like to hear what Mr Donald has to say, but his is not a lone voice; serious criticism of this sort should be taken seriously.
Entrepreneur Pete Boyle has made a significant positive contribution to Belfast, including through his Argento and Let’s Go Hydro businesses, and is also involved in restoring city centre property and securing its Victorian architectural heritage.
He says the council is holding back the city from achieving its potential. He points to the number of council-owned vacant sites and ground level car parks as evidence of the inertia around planning and development. The handling of the so-called Tribeca development is a symbol of how developers, the council and Stormont departments have failed the city and its rate payers, delivering only an eyesore.
Belfast does have a lot going for it, including the energy, resilience and wit of its people. Less red tape and a cleaner, more welcoming environment would be good places to start if the city centre is to be rejuvenated.