"It feels to me like the times when we had nobody, when we had the Troubles. It feels exactly the same"

The  Staff Canteen

For Belfast chef Michael Deane, answering a question as simple as "how are you getting on" is a difficult one.

"We haven't really traded since last year," he said of his Michelin-starred restaurant Deanes Eipic, as well as the six other venues he has around the city. 

"We've traded ten weeks since March, and we've been open-closed, open-closed." 

The restaurant was meant to reopen today, but instead, Northern Ireland has been plunged into another lockdown, almost as tough as the first in March. All non-essential businesses are closed and restaurants are only allowed to serve takeaway food. 

"We're very much driven by government," he explained, "but they seem to be more indecisive [than in England] because we have a five party coalition government, and sometimes politics gets in the way before health." 

And whilst campaigners have done their utmost to promote hospitality settings as both safe and desirable, he added, "I feel that confidence is very much on the ground." 

"I don't know how much of a rush we're going to get if people decide to come out to restaurants on the 8th December," when the firebreaker is set to end and businesses reopen, "and there's a good chance we probably won't. We're not holding our breath."

Missing out on Christmas is likely to strike a particular blow, he explained, as the festive period "is usually wonderful for us.

"We trade about £1m across December; people of Northern Ireland definitely go a bit over the top when it comes to celebrating Christmas and the new year," he laughed.

But due to the rule of six, the ban on mixing households and social distancing, he said, "we definitely won't have that," noting that customers routinely get impatient with the regimented nature of eating out at the moment. 

Support

Despite his belief that tackling the virus should have followed a one-Ireland approach, "again, politics got in the way."

This means that like their English, Scottish and Welsh peers, the promise of a Job Retention Scheme bonus was rescinded without warning for hospitality businesses in Northern Ireland.

"For us, with 175 staff, we were counting on it to see us through to March," he said. 

In terms of what the government could do to support hospitality further, he ventured that the furlough scheme topped up by government to make up for lost gratuity, which, in addition to NI contributions and tax, which costs them £9,000 a week. 

"We've had to peddle our own canoe through this and just hope for the best," adding that "you can only cut so much to the bone." 

Haunted by The Troubles

The history of Northern Ireland puts it at a disadvantage when it comes to bouncing back from the pandemic, as the city has only experienced a real shift for the better for a few decades.

"A lot of people from within the industry have lost the love of it because we're on the back foot," he explained, having lost a handful of his own staff to other sectors like healthcare service and deliveries. "I don't know if we'll ever get them back," he said. 

The reality of the situation is such that as long as overseas travel - from the US, Europe, or even the Republic - is near enough at a standstill, recovery is unfathomable. 

"Northern Ireland was one of the hubs of Europe, we were getting loads of conferences, loads of business, the Titanic Centre was bringing in hundreds of thousands of people, then all of a sudden it was taken away."

"It feels to me like the times when we had nobody, when we had The Troubles. It feels exactly the same.

"Maybe looking forward things will be better, but how long does it take people to come back to Belfast? It took people 20 years to come to Belfast. There are still people who don't come to Belfast because of the political situation."

"I don't know what the long term fix is going to be for the city - when you drive around the city the hotels are absolutely bleak, the restaurants are all poor."

And, separated from the rest of the UK by sea if not by government, he said, "we seem as if we're the dark cousin again," and while the time between lockdowns allowed some businesses on the mainland to recoup some lost income, this largely failed to happen in Northern Ireland. 

"We've been in Belfast now nearly 30 years and I've never felt the pressure as bad. I remember the days of the bombs, and putting the windows back in on a Friday afternoon.

"I remember the times with flags and the empty streets, when the town was completely empty and there was nobody there, walking through huge paramilitary and parades issues." 

And now, just like then, he said:"If you were to drive through Belfast at night, it's absolutely horrible, just the feel of it, there's hardly a light on, hardly people moving." 

And after the next firebreaker lockdown, it'll be eight weeks since a vast majority of restaurants have been closed. 

"So not a pretty picture at all to be painted." 

2021

With Brexit around the corner, more hardship is likely to strike Northern Ireland. 

"We've spent 50 years fighting our arses off trying to be European," he said. "We love being European, we were like an island in the sun for Europeans; all of a sudden when the Troubles were over we had people coming from all over, it was great." 

Now that we've left, he said, "we're back to being that dark, dismal place again." 

"But we've got to hold tight and see where this all ends up." 

His faith goes to the younger generation of chefs - namely, his own head chef Alex Greene and his former head Danni Barry, as well as Stephen Toman at Ox, Gareth McCaughey at The Muddlers Club, et al - whose work has uplifted the city's appeal and showcases the nation's talent, not just in the kitchen, but in the front of house, on farms and fishing boats, and all the way through the supply chain.

"We've been through worse than this, I can remember the times when we had armoured cars on the street, and hopefully we never have to go back to that- but I see a big climb for Belfast." 

"It  hasn't been easy for anybody, for our government or our medical advisors and everybody seems to be fighting everyday on the chat shows, giving it this and that - but nobody is right and nobody is wrong here." 

"We're fighting the unknown, we're not fighting paramilitaries or government; we're fighting an unknown virus, and it's proving to be the worst war we've ever been in."

"We mightn't be all in this together, but we're all in it."

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th November 2020

"It feels to me like the times when we had nobody, when we had the Troubles. It feels exactly the same"