Anger from Downpatrick business owners over flood support

A man walks through flood water up to his knees on Downpatrick's main shopping street
Downpatrick was one of the towns worst-hit by flooding in Northern Ireland last week

Angered traders in a town badly hit by flooding have criticised Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, saying a £15m help fund is not enough.

He visited Downpatrick in County Down after announcing the financial support.

But business owners, whose premises were ruined, were angry that he did not meet them and left through a back door as they gathered to speak to him.

Businessman Bartley Murphy said: "My life, my pension is down the tubes, is sitting in skips now."

'Irish manners'

"If he [Chris Heaton-Harris] wants Irish manners he will get them now. I am angry and cross and I am not afraid to vent my anger."

Mr Heaton-Harris had earlier made the announcement about the funding during a trip to Newry, which was also hit by recent heavy rainfall.

He said the money would "help with clean-up costs and support businesses to resume trading".

"I can only imagine how people must be feeling," he added.

The funding will assist with the immediate flooding response, clean up costs and improving properties' resilience to future floods.

On Wednesday evening, the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) released details of the support measures.

They include rates relief for flooded business premises and one-off grant payments of £7,500 for affected businesses.

It is estimated that up to 200 businesses will be eligible for the support, which will be administered by the local council. The first payments are due to be issued next week.

Proposals for further schemes to support the longer term recovery of the affected towns are being considered by government departments and local government.

Analysis box by Gareth Gordon, NI political correspondent
Analysis box by Gareth Gordon, NI political correspondent

Is there a template for the perfect political visit? If there is Chris Heaton-Harris's trip to Downpatrick isn't it.

He hoped to get in, meet the area's MP Chris Hazzard and get out - box ticked and good luck.

But some devastated traders in the town had other ideas, and to avoid them the Northern Ireland secretary fled by a back door.

He may have been hoping for kudos for turning up.

Instead he left branded a "coward" and "a thief in the night".

Except he didn't hear the insults - he was already gone.

Newry Chamber of Commerce said an estimated £37m would be needed to repair the damage across the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council area.

Speaking earlier on Wednesday, its president Julie Gibbons told BBC News NI: "[The £15m] is no where near enough but it's a good start."

"It's more than was rumoured and what was expected."

After meeting Mr Heaton-Harris on Wednesday, she said: "We had two hours of positive engagement - he was empathetic and supportive so this is a start.

"It will give those worst affected the confidence to get back trading."

Julie Gibbons from Newry Chamber of Conference
Julie Gibbons from Newry Chamber of Conference says more help is needed

What damage was done?

This month's flooding was described as "an exceptional natural event" by Stormont's Department for Infrastructure.

In Newry about 100 businesses were affected, with some suffering "catastrophic" damage.

In Downpatrick a business owner said shop stock was "just floating about" after the flooding.

Homes in Portadown were also badly damaged by floodwater.

Ms Gibbons said representatives and businesses in Newry would "keep pushing" for more help but hoped the funding would be made available quickly.

'Businesses in survival mode'

Representing shopkeepers in the city, Newry Business Improvement District managing director Eamonn Connolly welcomed the funding but said "it won't go far enough".

Some businesses were in "survival mode" with damages up to £1m, he said.

Newry businesses initially pitched for £40m across the council district but even that "doesn't fully cover the extent of the losses", he added.

"Every day we do the clean up we discover more latent damage and we haven't yet reached anywhere near the full extent of that.

"At the minute [traders are] in survival mode and many have to make big decisions as to whether they actually can reopen so this is a very welcome start."

Downpatrick business owner Bartley Murphy
Bartley Murphy expressed frustration after Chris Heaton-Harris left Downpatrick without speakin to traders

Sinn Féin's MP Chris Hazzard said that the funding was "simply not good enough" given the scale of the damage.

"It's extremely disappointing to be frank about it," he said.

"Speaking with local businesses here in Downpatrick this evening, they're absolutely shell shocked that, despite the warm words from the secretary of state, we're not seeing the relative action that we need."

Where is the money coming from?

Mr Heaton-Harris was critical of the fact that a non-functioning Stormont executive delayed financial support getting to flood-hit businesses and homes.

"Ministers could have made decisions a lot quicker because there wouldn't be much of a debate with the UK government because the money would be sat in Stormont for provision by Stormont ministers," he said.

The £15m is being made available by switching some of Stormont's infrastructure budget into day-to-day spending.

However the devolved administrations - including Scotland and Wales - require the UK government's permission to make that sort of switch.

That means that even if a Stormont executive had been in place it would have still required a negotiation to spend the money in this way.

Mr Hazzard said that the reallocation of funds was "robbing Peter to pay Paul".

He added: "This is recycled capital monies from local government departments that are already under severe pressure."

Mr Heaton-Harris said the money was "pretty much available now" but that it would be up to the councils and the Northern Ireland Civil Service to manage the roll-out.

Asked if the amount from the government would be enough for each affected business, he said it would be used primarily for clean-up costs and "getting them back and trading".

"What I've heard [from businesses]… they've got all sorts of very big issues that are short-term, medium-term and long-term but I'd like to think that this is a statement of support if nothing less for those businesses."