A GROUP of 120 people met in Downpatrick RGU GAA club last week in support of the traders in the town whose livelihoods have been put under serious threat following the recent flooding. Thousands of pounds of stock was destroyed in businesses in the town centre when it flooded on Thursday 2 November. The water was pumped away by Saturday 4 November, but the business owners are now facing an uncertain future.
A number of key businesses decided that a united front was needed, and they organised a meeting for last Tuesday (7 November). Paul McCartan, from McCartan Shoes and McCartan Sport, chaired the meeting and he was assisted by Morgan Morrison from Doc’s fish and chip shop, Bartley Murphy from Murphy’s bar in Downpatrick – who is also a building contractor – and Mal McGrady, from MB McGrady and Co accountants. “The businesses have come together to form a coordinated response,” Mal said. “This is affecting everyone and there is uncertainty.” The group thought that maybe 40 people would turn up. In the end three times that number arrived at Downpatrick RGU, which included members of the public as well as public representatives. As many as 50 businesses were affected in Downpatrick, and some of them expressed their concerns at the meeting. Paul McCartan said: “You feel vulnerable because your livelihood has been taken away.”
Colman Magennis, who runs Down Jewellery, said: “My shop is completely wrecked, there are three dehumidifiers going full belt.” A representative from the Credit Union in Downpatrick said: “The Credit Union is completely destroyed, it will take us to March next year to get back in. “We will have relocated but the effect on our members has been catastrophic.”
The meeting was a chance for the local business community to air their concerns about the future. Eamonn Connolly from Newry BID (the Business Improvement District, supporting more than 600 businesses) was asked to come along. Eamonn addressed the group first and outlined some of the approaches that the Newry group has taken following the flooding that took place in the city. “My advice is to get as much information as you can,” he said. “Get your data and get it in. Any payments will be evidence-based.” But he added that costs will increase as the extent of the damage becomes clearer. “We had put initial numbers in last week, once people were clearing out, then they saw that the damage was even greater. “We are talking millions of pounds. And that is no joke.”
Bartley Murphy reiterated this point. “I work in this game. The damage that you have at the moment is bad,” he said. “As the premises dry out, the damage we are not seeing gets worse and worse. “Each day you go in things that didn’t look broken could be broken. Things shrink, crack or swell and break. “People have to be careful what they are doing, and be careful what you are salvaging.” However, he did say that they should work together to try and bring the town back to what it was. “We can’t waste time. We have to be on top of every part of this thing if we are going to get our town back again. “Some of us might not be back but there are those of us who want to come back and build a better town.”
Brian Rogers, who own JJ Donnelly’s, said: “It is simple, we need money and we need it now.” One angry member of the group said: “Is there going to be support from the Irish Government? “The Irish Government are paying for Carlingford Bridge. They are paying for Casement Park. There are Irish citizens here in Downpatrick who need support. “So we can ask the question: ‘Will they not pay for 20,000 citizens, Irish passport holders in Downpatrick, or is that too sensitive, politically?’”
One attendee asked if enough work was being done to look into the why and the how of what happened. “Can a business owner invest in the property in confidence that in a week’s time it is not going to be flooded again?” they asked. Bartley Murphy responded: “This flood has to do with a blockage. “This started from Tuesday morning. It went from a puddle till the pumps had to be turned off because the stuff couldn’t get away. “They worked through the night to try and clear it. They had diggers down on the second water break. The digger was too big and they had to take it away because it kept falling in. “Worst case scenario, if we are flooding again they have two big water pumps out the Killyleagh Road that they can pump with if the Quoile is flooding. I would be happy that it is not going to happen.”
However, this was countered by a member of the Clean the Quoile campaign, Stephen O’Hare. He was more concerned about the future of the town. He said: “I disagree with that. We have been campaigning for 18 months about the Quoile, as we say it needs dredged. “Local fishermen have been doing it for decades.” He mentioned one drain in the area that if dredged would be at a depth of seven foot and could hold 19 million litres of water. “That’s just one drain. So work, and money, needs to go towards doing that because it’s going to happen again.”
The matter of a judicial review was also brought up at the meeting. A representative from Joe Mulholland’s office was in attendance. They said they were looking into the matter. “A huge amount of legal issues arise from this,” the representative said. “It is going to take time to sort it out. There are questions to be answered from DfI. We are going to explore every single legal avenue that we can. “There have been more than two decades of issues with the Quoile. Had they listened to these concerns then we wouldn’t be in this situation. This needs to be examined. “Joe Mulholland’s door is always open. We can answer any questions.”
There was some discussion about how to bounce back from the devastating flooding and secure a bright future for the town. Mal McGrady said: “I have spent the last 12 months heading up a regeneration group that has spent an enormous amount of time putting together a strategy for the future. We are now going backwards unfortunately. “I know it is difficult as people are shovelling stuff out of their shops, but we have to possibly try and use this as a positive going forward. “The eyes of the nation are now on Downpatrick, we have everybody visiting Downpatrick over the next week or so. “We have set aside budgetary money for our regeneration projects which we will hopefully try to redirect towards projects to get the town up and running. “We have an opportunity but a short window of opportunity to get the town reestablished.”
Paul McCartan said that setting up the traders group, which the meeting amounted to, was important. “We have talked about this traders group for years. If we had a traders group up and running, I am not saying I would chair it, but today proves that we need a traders group, where this information that is being fed in could be fed back to you. We are fumbling in the dark a wee bit.” Though Bartley pointed out that efforts had been made to do so before. “If you want to start them up then you have to have the heart and conviction to stick with it. “Maybe we need to get together as a group and build something to help each other and build each other’s business.”
One lady pointed out: “With all due respect I think we are jumping the gun a bit. “There are some people who may not even have a business. I think that this discussion is for another day.” A similar response was made following a proposal to set up Go Fund Me or Just Giving pages, or to run a festival. One person in the audience said that they should get businesses up and running before organising concerts. Which in a sense summed up the tenor of the meeting, a mix of people determined to find their way out of this problem, but at the same time fearing the worst.