Interview with Occupy Belfast and situation on Royal Avenue

In my recent piece on politics and the internet here, I noted that Occupy Belfast had not done much during its short existence other than occupy Belfast's officially sanctioned haunt of leftists, Writers' Square. Alan in Belfast also had a Slugger piece up over the weekend noting that Occupy were not exactly catching the imagination of the man on the Antrim Road omnibus.

Occupy Belfast in the disused Bank of Ireland branch on Royal AvenueOccupy activists must have enjoyed reading those pieces, knowing they were about to occupy one of Belfast's highest profile empty buildings.

I caught up with Gerard from Occupy Belfast at their camp in Writers' Square today, after their movement made a high profile play by taking over the disused Bank of Ireland building on Royal Avenue. I couldn’t get the 7 minute interview to embed on Slugger, but one can listen to it by following this link.

On Saturday, Occupy activists entered the disused Bank of Ireland branch on the corner of Royal Avenue and North Street, which was the home of the Belfast Stock Exchange in the days when we still had one… at least until the late 1990s, if my memory is correct. They did not make their presence public until just before noon today, when they unfurled a number of banners from the top floor of the building, quickly attracting a crowd of curious onlookers, along with the PSNI and, for a brief period, keyholders and the Fire Brigade.

The delay in announcing their presence seems to have been primarily to satisfy what they understand to be the legal requirements for squatting a building, but doubtless those inside will have used the time to fortify their position as well. The decision to squat the building seems to have been taken quite some time ago.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Occupy’s ideological position or their tactics, they could not have picked a better metaphor for their critique of free-market democracy. Not only did is it the former home of a stock exchange, it also hosted a branch of an institution that has benefited from the controversial taxpayer-funded rescue package for profligate banks in the Republic. This gorgeous building, one of Belfast’s few pieces of art deco, has lain empty at one end of the City’s main shopping thoroughfare for almost half a decade. The property developers who bought it in 2007-ish were doubtless working on assumptions about the future of Northern Ireland property prices that have turned out to be grossly unrealistic. And so, one of the gateways to the city centre is overlooked by a decaying shell rather than something productive and well looked after. This is indeed a case where the logic of the market flies directly in the face of the common good.

Notice posted by Occupy Belfast on the occupied Bank of Ireland buildingI was surprised at the boldness and audacity of the move. The prime site guarantees a high media profile and tens of thousands of commuters passing by on North Belfast buses or walking in from car parks every day. Occupy Belfast activists were hopeful that the homework that they have obviously put in on the legal aspects of squatting a building pay off. Notices like the one pictured were pasted on the front door of the building. It has been a very long time indeed since Belfast had such a high profile squatting, squatting doesn't seem to happen very much these days anyway. I imagine lawyers on all sides of the dispute will have to hit the books hard over the next day or two before forming a definite opinion on what, legally, removing the building's occupiers is going to involve.

I chatted to Gerard about Occupy Belfast's plans for the building, and it was obvious that Occupy Belfast's ideal outcome is a permanent takeover, with the Bank of Ideas in East London's Hackney being a possible model. We also discussed whether or not the popular stereotype of Occupy as the usual bunch of students and old lefties doing their usual thing was true, whether the sectarianised nature of politics here gave Occupy much room to breathe, and their links with Occupy and other internet-driven street protest movements around the world.

Final note – the link to Occupy Belfast’s twitter account (@OpOccupyBelfast) is the correct one this time – I was led astray by an unofficial account set up by a well-wisher last week.