Getting flood aid without Stormont ‘like fighting with arms behind our backs’

Getting flood aid without Stormont ‘like fighting with arms behind our backs’

Politicians are “fighting with their arms tied behind their backs” for financial support for businesses damaged in floods without a functioning Stormont, Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy has said.

Parts of the eastern half of Northern Ireland have been hit with severe flooding following heavy rain, with Newry, Portadown and Banbridge among the worst areas affected.

Some 12,000 sandbags have been deployed against the waters.

The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service said between 6pm on Monday and 1pm on Wednesday it received 162 emergency calls around flooding incidents.

Firefighters attended 75 incidents, which included rescuing five people who had entered water, 31 people from vehicles in water and 12 people from flooded properties.

They also attended eight animal rescue incidents and seven water in electrics incidents.

In Newry, an estimated 80 businesses are counting the cost after the city’s canal burst its banks on Monday night, submerging sections under water.

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Ross Campbell, sales assistant at Vivo, clears out damaged property in Newry Town (Brian Lawless/PA)

Business owners in the city have spoken of the potential of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damages to their livelihoods because of the floods.

Amid the ongoing collapse of the Stormont Assembly, senior civil servants are running government departments with restricted powers in the absence of ministers.

A cross-departmental group has been set up to co-ordinate central and local government efforts to support people and businesses.

In terms of support, Mr Murphy said the household scheme is in place, but they are looking at what is available for businesses.

He said he met with the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Jayne Brady earlier, and said there has discussion between the departments on how to deal with this and they are awaiting the outcome.

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Debris and flood water in Sugar Island, Newry Town (Brian Lawless/PA)

“We want to make sure we press for as immediate a support as is possible for businesses that have suffered damage, and need to immediately get down to repair, restock and try and get businesses back open,” he told reporters at Parliament Buildings, Stormont on Wednesday.

“If Stormont was in place, I would have no doubt there would be several ministers in Newry yesterday and today assisting with the operation that is going on, but also turning their mind to collectively working together.

“We’ve done that in the past and unfortunately these types of severe weather instances are more and more frequent as global warming takes its toll. I have no doubt that we would be down with a number of ministers in the area trying to put their heads together and work up some support schemes to ensure that people get the level of support that they need.

“Whether that’s happening in the near future or not, I don’t know. I know we’re up here today fighting with two arms tied behind our backs trying to get support for people, and clearly, the best situation would be if we had people in place in office to take decisions, that can put schemes in place, that can get out on the ground and try and respond quickly.

“That is a much more optimal situation than civil servants trying to figure these things out for themselves.”

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Newry’s canal burst its banks (Brian Lawless/PA)

In a statement, Ms Brady said: “Colleagues have been working tirelessly around the clock to mitigate, as far as possible, the effects of this major weather event.

“It is very distressing to see the impact this is having on families and businesses and whilst this remains an unfolding situation the response continues on the ground.

“Our priority is, as far as possible, to prevent risk to life and property.  In the coming days, the focus will move to recovery.

“In recognition of this, a cross-departmental group has been established to ensure that everything that can be done is being done and to co-ordinate central and local government efforts to support people and businesses over the coming days and weeks.”

In Newry, Paul McCartan, owner of McCartan Bros menswear store, estimated it will cost about £250,000 to repair and restock his shop.

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Newry Town has been swamped by floodwater (Brian Lawless/PA)

Michael Nugent, owner of Nugelato Ice-Cream Parlour, is still counting the costs but estimated repairing the damage could be up to £100,000.

He said: “This is the first day we have been able to access the shop, with the levels of flooding yesterday it was under a few feet of water. While the water has thankfully left our shop, it has gone down the road and there is still a big problem.

“For our shop, it’s going to be about salvaging what we can.

“We didn’t have much warning, had we known we possibly could have got equipment and stock out.”

Mr Nugent said they have not yet heard of any financial aid that might be made available to businesses.

He added: “We haven’t heard a thing as yet … we have had no assurances. Most businesses in Newry aren’t insured with flood risks.

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A tractor makes its way through flood water in Canal Quay in Newry (Brian Lawless/PA)

“We need some leadership and some support. “If we have to replace everything … it could be upwards of £100,000.”

Roads and some train services have been disrupted in counties Down, Antrim and Armagh and Newry courthouse has been temporarily closed with business moved to Craigavon.

The Department of Justice said the measure was to allow for remedial works to take place and to make sure the staff and public are kept safe.

“Court business will return to Newry Courthouse as soon as possible,” they added.

Racing at the Down Royal racecourse planned for this Friday and Saturday has been postponed and will take place the following weekend instead.

On Wednesday morning, the Department for Infrastructure said it remained on high alert through the night.

It received almost 800 calls to its flooding incident line and has distributed more than 12,000 sandbags to the areas worst affected.

A spokesperson said river and lough levels continue to be monitored as they rise and will continue to be monitored over the coming days.

“People are urged to stay away from flood defences, flooded areas and watercourses,” they added.

Further rain is expected with the arrival of Storm Ciaran later.

The Met Office has issued a yellow warning for rain for the eastern half of Northern Ireland on Thursday.