At the famous Nemo’s chip shop on Belfast’s Upper Lisburn Road, there’s an unwanted addition to the menu.
Above the printed prices for a large portion of crisps (£3.60) or a Munch Box (£5.80), a handwritten sign has been taped on. In all caps, it reads: “Please note that menu prices have increased. Please check the menu below until.”
The company has no choice but to warn its customers. Soaring fish and oil prices, largely due to the war in Ukraine, left the owners – the Morgan family – in an impossible situation.
“What is a person willing to pay for a piece of cod and fries? asks Rory Morgan. “Are they willing to pay £20? Are they willing to pay £30? Because it’s £15 a minute. We’re not going to go to £20 or £30 – we might as well close the shop.”
He doesn’t say this lightly – the family has already closed one of its four locations due to soaring energy costs, and those are expected to rise further.
People here are more vulnerable to the crisis than anywhere else in the UK; household disposable income in Northern Ireland is less than half the national average. And in times of crisis, there is no decentralized government to turn to for strong leadership.
On Friday, one of the main suppliers, SSE Airtricity, announced steep price increases for its gas and electricity customers. The company said gas prices would rise 28.3% and electricity prices would rise 35.4% on October 1.
This is just the latest in a series of increases that show no signs of ending. Northern Ireland’s utilities regulator has issued a stark warning that due to rising wholesale costs, gas prices will rise by 30% from October.
To make matters worse, partly due to Stormont’s absence, there is continued uncertainty over when the £400 energy payment will be delivered that households everywhere else in the UK know they will receive in October . The DUP says it should happen in November; Sinn Fein say it could be the end of the year.
The utility regulator’s chief executive, John French, said the Treasury did not include Northern Irish representatives in initial discussions of the scheme.
“Discussions with England, Scotland and Wales began in March,” Mr French said.
“We didn’t start discussions until late June, early July, and that caused some of the delays in the process of getting the £400 out to consumers here.”
He admits he finds it ‘frustrating’ because, he says, ‘it’s the most vulnerable area in the whole of the UK, and customers need help getting into this winter time’.
More money spent on gas and electricity means less money on other basic necessities of life. With the start of the new school year approaching, children’s equipment is a major expense for many families.
At Ashton Center in North Belfast, a pop-up school uniform store has opened. Here, more than 300 families received “pre-loved” uniforms and PE gear. According to the school, outfits can cost up to £500 per child – a steep tax for many in the current economic climate.
“Families are very emotional,” says the center’s Christine McKeown, standing among the rails of freshly laundered school blazers.
“Every time they walk in they have very, very little. When they walk away they have everything from a full uniform to children’s hair accessories and new socks. It’s wonderful to be able to do this work.”
The center has also opened a community grocery store, where, for a nominal fee of £5, families can select £40 worth of groceries from neatly maintained shelves. Joanne Kinnear, of the Ashton Centre, says it gives families more “mandate” than using a food bank, as they budget for and choose their products, as well as access to other services.
Ms Kinnear says demand has been extremely high and people’s priorities have underlined how hard the cost of living crisis has hit.
“One of the things where I thought ‘God, where are we as a society’ was a gentleman who said ‘could I get a toothbrush?’ He said, “I don’t have a toothbrush. What society do we live in that a toothbrush is considered a luxury?”
Staff have noticed that many children who come with their parents choose vegetables instead of chocolates or sweets – very aware at a young age of their family’s difficulty in putting meals on the dinner table.