Cup of tea and warm welcome to Minister on his visit to flood sites

Cup of tea and warm welcome to Minister on his visit to flood sites

15 November 2023

AS Lord Caine spoke with traders at the St Patrick’s Centre in Downpatrick last Thursday afternoon, someone forgot to switch off the music feed to the exhibition area where he was standing.

It was difficult to hear what the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State was saying at times as the waft of Irish music filled the air.

And while there were enquiring looks between politicians who were hoping one of them would seize the initiative and go and politely ask staff to switch it off, no one moved.

It they had, it would have been no surprise if the Irish lilt had been replaced with Dinah Washington’s 1959 hit What A Difference A Day Made.

For those unfamiliar with the song, the opening lines could have been written to describe the ill-fated visit to Downpatrick last Wednesday by the Secretary of State and the arrival of Lord Caine the following day.

Oh yes, those opening lyrics. “What a difference a day made, 24 little hours, brought the sun and the flowers where there used to be rain.”

It may not have been raining when Chris Heaton-Harris arrived at the multi-million pound visitor centre dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint, but the storm clouds were certainly hovering menacingly overhead when he nipped out a back door to avoid traders whose businesses were decimated by the worst flood in living memory and who were keen to talk to him.

As the fallout from his visit continued, Lord Caine was preparing to visit the town at the request of fellow peer Baroness Margaret Ritchie.

When his car swept in to St Patrick’s Square, politicians and traders, whose businesses were left in ruins by the flood, were waiting and there were smiles and warm hand shakes and several “thank you for coming” messages.

Inside from the cold and with a welcoming cup of coffee in his hand, an empathetic Lord Caine said he was there to listen with his visit designed to provide him with a sense of the devastation that unfolded as the town centre filled with water.

After a brief chat he made his way to the nearby Downpatrick and Co Down heritage railway, a short journey that would only have been possible by boat one week earlier.

From there he made his way out on to Market Street to speak with a number of business owners with Lord Cain reminding them he was there to listen. 

And he was clearly shocked by what he seen and heard.

He accessed Market Street via the lifeless and eerily dark Grove shopping centre. The smell of damp was overpowering and the sight of a once thriving Post Office now a cold and empty shell was gut-wrenching.

There to get a sense of the scale of what happened, Lord Caine’s visit didn’t disappoint and he meant every word when he told traders he could only imagine what it was like for them, marvelling at their stoicism and resilience.

At Murphy’s bar and restaurant, Lord Caine met Bartley Murphy who featured regularly on television news channels during blanket coverage of the worst flood in a generation.

There was a warm welcome, a smile and firm handshake with the businessman showing the scale of the damage to a business under six feet of water at one stage.

Next door, Lord Caine met Noel Traynor whose dry cleaning business lay in ruins. 

There was another “thanks for coming” welcome and when the peer met Ciara Douglas – who unwittingly became one of the other public faces of the flood coverage when she rescued Holy Communion dresses from her St Patrick’s Avenue shop by carrying them to safety high above her head. There were not only warm words but a hug and another “thank you for coming”.

After meeting with other business owners it was time to leave. The response from the business community to Lord Caine was warm and engaging.

He came, he listened and clearly showed he cared and traders were more than grateful for his presence. Their voices had been heard.

How different it all could have been.

But as the song says, what a difference a day made – 24 little hours.