The tragic news of a fire devastating the flagship Primark store in Belfast city centre is a shock to many people. Investigations are underway into the cause of the blaze, which began at 11am on Tuesday 28th August. By the time firefighters extinguished all the flames the following morning, the damage was extensive. All that remains of the building in the photo above is a blackened shell.
Why is the Primark Building Important?
Although nobody was hurt, the loss of this landmark building was a blow to the people of Belfast. The Bank Buildings are Grade B1 listed, meaning that they are of local and architectural importance. First opening as the Bank of the Four Johns back in 1787, Waddell Cunningham originally constructed the buildings in 1785. It was then a residence for the Bishop of Down and Connor. The lower floors became a shop in 1805, witnessing public executions outside until 1816. It became a department store with the founding of a drapery firm in 1853. Notoriously, the Bank Buildings experienced three IRA bombs and a fire in 1975 during the Troubles. Primark took over and renovated in 1979, and have been there ever since. They were in the process of a £30 million refurbishment and extension when this fire destroyed the Bank Buildings. It is an iconic part of the heart of the city for many in the local community, and a big draw for business. This tragedy puts hundreds of jobs at risk and will impact local trade as well.
What Will Happen to Primark Belfast?
The cause of the fire has been unclear since the first spotting of smoke coming from the roof. There was an efficient evacuation of shoppers and staff after raising the alarm, meaning that there were no injuries. Police and firefighters set up a cordon around 45m from the scene to protect passersby and the crowd of onlookers. Any hopes they had for a quick resolution crumbled with the building, as the fire spread down each floor over the next several hours. The roof and internal floors collapsed, as debris fell from the sides of the building. While the fire is out, the building is still at risk of total collapse. Structural engineers will carry out assessments over the coming weeks to determine if the facade and interiors are salvageable. A cordon is still in place on Royal Avenue, and police are advising the public to avoid Castle Street as well. It could be a while before any restoration work begins, and there is no estimate for the total cost of the damage yet. The neighbouring shops and businesses are reopening as normal.
What About Primark Belfast Employees?
There are around 350 employees at the Belfast store, who will now be worrying about their futures. Primark had recently begun recruiting for up to 100 new jobs at the store, too. While expressing shock and sadness at this terrible turn of events, Primark’s chief executive Paul Marchant said that they are working closely to support the Belfast team. Primark is also working with the local authorities and their contractors to determine the source of the fire. The trade union USDAW (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) met with Primark on Wednesday to discuss the future for the store’s employees. At the moment, the only certainty is that workers will still be paid for the rest of the week. Primark is promising more long-term answers for their staff next week. Management are obviously hoping to retain their employees, but it is not clear if it will be possible to redeploy them all to other areas. Some staff members also lost belongings in the fire that they had to leave behind when evacuating the shop.