C: BBC (L) and Wikimedia Commons (R)

NI businesses defend right to open during Queen’s funeral

Independent retailers in Northern Ireland have defended their right to open during the funeral of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, saying they would only close for a family funeral or Christmas. 

Britain has been in official mourning since Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8 at the age of 96. The former monarch’s funeral took place today from 11am at Westminster Abbey, with 19 September having been approved as a new bank holiday by King Charles III, with many places across the UK closing as a mark of respect.

While it’s business as usual in the Republic, Northern Ireland will see many shops, schools, banks, businesses, and other places closed today. However, there is no legal requirement for employers to give staff the day off. 

It is at the discretion of each individual establishment across the UK on whether it will stay open. Since the bank holiday was announced, some organisations in Northern Ireland have confirmed they will stay open for the Queen’s funeral, whilst others have confirmed they will shut. 

In republican strongholds such as west Belfast, it is expected the majority of smaller businesses in the area will remain open, although larger stores including Asda and Tesco will close for a time today.

Belfast Live reported on how the streets of towns and cities across the province are “eerily empty” today, devoid of the normal business as school children, commuters, shoppers and workers remain at home. 

“Belfast is probably the quietest it’s been since March 2020 when the first Covid lockdown began,” the media site reported.

As reported by The Irish News, many independent retailers, such as convenience stores, coffee shops and garden centres, will be open as usual today. Speaking to the paper yesterday, one west Belfast business owner said:

“We open every bank holiday, Christmas being the exception. We wouldn’t be closing for any funeral other than family. Times are tough for everyone at the moment. We can’t afford to lose business”.

SDLP representative in west Belfast, Paul Doherty, also told the paper that the majority of businesses in the area would remain open. He cited the cost-of-living crisis, stating:

“A lot of businesses are struggling with electricity bills and being impacted by this, it is essential that they do stay open. I think generally across west Belfast, speaking to businesses, they need to stay open”.

Meanwhile, in Dungiven, also a predominantly republican area, it emerged late last week that the town’s SuperValu store would remain open, after staff insisted they would work despite closure plans. Staff who resisted the plans to close were supported by Sinn Fein councillor Sean McGlinchey who reportedly met with employees, and told them to meet with Musgrave NI, the owners of the SuperValu brand.

Musgrave NI said in a statement that their Dungiven SuperValu store will remain operational to “staff who wish to continue to work” today despite the company’s previous announcement all SuperValu shops would close as a mark of respect for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. 

In a statement, it said: “Earlier this week, our store colleagues in Dungiven were informed that the store would be closing to customers on Monday, 19th September from 10.30am until 1.30pm.

“In order to keep the food supply chain moving across our network in Northern Ireland, the store will remain operational and staff who wish to continue to work on Monday can do so.

“All colleagues have been given an additional day’s leave in respect of the bank holiday.”

While the shop is operational this morning, it is closed to the public from 10.30 to 1.30pm.

Former DUP MLA Jim Wells said the refusal from staff to take the bank holiday off was a matter of political point-scoring. Speaking to broadcaster Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio Ulster last Thursday, he said the shop’s plans to remain operational during the time of the funeral was “highly regrettable”.

“This is not being done to serve the community of Dungiven, this is being done to make a political point,” he said. 

It comes after an image of a message on Black Mountain in Belfast went viral, coinciding with the arrival of King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla in Belfast on 13 September.

“We serve no King but Ireland,” the protest message read, with the message circulating widely on social media as King Charles was photographed reading floral tributes to the Queen in Belfast. 

While there has been resistance to the bank holiday in nationalist areas, stores including Asda, Argos, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Next, B&M, and Spar have all shut their doors today, while McDonald’s and some smaller express supermarket stores will be open from 5pm.

Shopping hubs including Connswater and Castlecourt in Belfast are closed, whilst Bloomfield Shopping Centre in North Down and Forestside in Derry are also closed.

It comes as politicians from Northern Ireland’s five largest political parties are set to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral today, which will also be attended by Irish President Michael D. Higgins and Taoiseach Michael Martin.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, Democratic Unionist (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Alliance party leader Naomi Long, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie are all in attendance. Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey will also be attending in his capacity as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. 

Church leaders from across the faith divide are also in attendance, including Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, who paid tribute to the Queen on Sunday ahead of the funeral, stating:

“I hope and pray that in some small ways this has helped to strengthen relationships and mutual understanding between our communities.

“Queen Elizabeth herself would want this. She was a courageous peacemaker and a reconciler of difference”.

Parks and civic buildings in Northern Ireland will air live feeds of the Queen’s funeral today. Belfast City Hall is among venues where a big screen has been set up so people can gather to watch the state funeral.

About 2,000 people are expected to attend the funeral at Westminster Abbey today, with world leaders and heads of state pictured arriving this morning. 

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