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.

  • cynic2

    Getting a bit parky in the Square was it?

    What a Masterstroke. Occupying a building that was last a ban branch around 1990 – all of 20 years ago – and more recently housed nostalgia bus tours of Belfast. Capitalism is quaking in its boots

  • John Ó Néill

    Great choice of buildings to occupy: speculators, rather than developers, appear to have bought it and were leaving it empty to facilitate a quick sale when there was profit in it (which is a waste of one of Belfast’s best bits of art deco architecture).

  • Comrade Stalin

    I see they’re quoting the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which piqued my attention given that most of the law here under direct rule was made by Order in Council. I was horrified to see this piece of legislation when I looked it up – it’s a grotesque edifice, with tentacles touching all over various parts of the UK.

    I hope the Occupy folks have got their legal standing right.

  • I’m surprised people of our generation don’t remember the campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill; it was, in some ways, the Occupy movement of its day and some of the older Occupyists would have cut their direct action teeth in it. A truly creepy piece of legislation which as initially drafted would have criminalised ‘music with a repetitive beat’ in certain contexts. Amusing as all music has a repetitive beat except for some traditional African music and some weird avant-garde and PoMo classical stuff. And I’m one of very few people I know who listens to either…

    cynic2 is much too cynical. Would you rather they tried to occupy an actual working bank and maybe get themselves and a load of other people shot? I thought it was very clever – low enough profile that nobody saw them go in, high enough profile that they’ll be seen every day until they’re kicked out, and a transparent waste of a great building on a great site because it suits speculators.

  • I was just thinking about the Kill the Bill stuff myself Gerry.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Gerry, any chance you can get a a guarntee from the protestors that they will not damage the building? It is an architectural gem, part of me think they can be much worse than some developers have behaved with out heritage, but on the other hand many successful developments have protected the best of our heritage, and I cant see the protestors contributing.

  • cynic2

    It looks like a cold hole. I bet they aren’t there by March

  • sonofstrongbow

    An Art Deco building full of arsey dickos? Just what Royal Avenue needs for the tourists to photograph.

    They can festoon the building with their crayoned nonsense and watch the world go by, no doubt cradling their Starbucks skinny lattes and playing with their Apple tech as they do. Perhaps they left their tents for the (more permanent) Belfast wino population who can better tough out the cold weather?

    I’m all for this bunch of life’s losers and serial ‘protestors’ to stay. Bolt the doors – from the outside.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Oh, that Criminal Justice Act, I remember that ..

    The “repetitive beats” part made it into the Act. See section 63 in the link above.

  • Reader

    cynic2: It looks like a cold hole. I bet they aren’t there by March
    But if they move the Belfast homeless in, it’ll be pretty warm. So, let’s just hope the water hasn’t been disconnected.

  • iluvni

    maybe millionaire property owner, Billy Bragg, will come over and do a gig for them to show solidarity and to fight Fathcher etc

  • Mickles

    @ sonofstrongbow

    What tired old points you make about the Occupy movement buying lattes and using iphones. First of all – prove it. Secondly, they’re not anti-capitalist. Did you get that? NOT ANTI-CAPITALIST. It’s a pretty weak criticism and nothing to do with the point they’re making.

    I mean, do they have to swindle people out of hard earned cash like the credit rating agencies who caused the financial crisis by deliberately misrepresenting the risk involved in mortgages before you take them seriously? You know, the financial crisis caused by the lying, mutual-back-scratching, born-into-riches types? The crisis that caused people who didn’t have rich parents to lose their jobs due to cuts. Cuts necessary because of the financial disaster caused by the kind of people who buy up buildings and leave them derelict based on speculation (aka lies)?

    If the owner of the building was happy enough to buy up landmark buildings only to leave them derelict, contributing to urban decay, then why not make use of this sad by-product of heinous lack of regulation in the financial world?

  • carl marks

    You have to laugh, the usual suspect’s line-up, not with a balanced argument but the usual load of twattle and abuse. This protest is against the way the politicians banks, credit companies, and property speculators have damaged society.
    The young people involved have behaved in a dignified manner, causing no street disturbance, they chant no sectarian tunes. They do not Block lawful passage, nor any of the other things that we normally associate with protest in this place.
    Perhaps instead of protesting about silly things like jobs, education, housing, health care etc they could get themselves sashes and banners and try to walk down a road they aren’t wanted on then maybe some of you might support them.

  • damon

    Sonofstrongbow, there’s nothing wrong with those Occupy people using Starbucks and owning mobile phones. It’s a weak argument.

    Conservative MP Louise Mensch tried to make some jokes about the protesters in London on ”Have I got News for You” – and was roundly thrashed by Ian Hislop and Paul Merton.

    I’m not a fan of the occupy movement myself though.
    It’s all a bit daft and attention seeking I find.

  • andnowwhat

    I don’t think mobile phones have been a luxury item since about 1995 and as for the Starbuck’s comment, look at the treatment Louise Mench got from the none too leftie Ian Hislop when she came off with that crap.

    Seems to me that the Occupy Movement are the only people practicing any real politics in all of this craphole.

    If we get one or two decent politicians out of them, we’ll be blessed. At least they’re not burning taxi drivers means of a living in front of their eyes because someone did or did not walk down a bit of tarmac

  • andnowwhat

    On the topic of the building, we should have had an Occupy Belfast’s Architectural Heritage some 20 odd years ago.

    Buildings such as the central post office, Brand’s and Norman’s, Robinson Cleaver, The Kitchen Bar etc. should never have been allowed to be knocked down or destroyed.

    There’s a tourist office just down Lower North St from this bank, a new build as I recall. This building may have made a much better venue as a testament to Belfast’s heritage.

    They could have got HELM to buy it, they’re quite generous in their purchases, it would seem

  • Comrade Stalin

    Robinson Cleaver is still there, of course. The Kitchen Bar I could take or leave, but all the other examples (plus others that spring to mind eg the old Queen’s Quay and Great Victoria Street railway stations, the big hotel that was on Royal Ave, etc) are all symptomatic of the outright vandalism in the name of progress that took place for years here.

  • Comrade Stalin

    On the subject of old pictures of the city centre, put aside a few hours over on to see what the city centre looked like. In the linked picture, the photographer is standing where Castle Court was about to be built, looking in the direction of Argos on Royal Avenue (which was then, as you can see, a Texas Homecare DIY store, which I just about remember).

    Here’s a great picture of the old Grand Central Hotel (where, among other things, the DUP held their inaugural meeting), looking at the corner of Castle Court which would have been most famous for having Belfast’s original Virgin Megastore. In the background The Avenue cinema can be seen.

  • sonofstrongbow

    Some of the usual suspects supporting occupation? Who’d have thunk it?

  • sonofstrongbow

    Free the Art Deco 1!

  • Mickles

    @ sonofstrongbow

    Can’t refute the points, so attack the people who made ’em. Nice one.

  • erewhon

    Wonder if these people would understand the significance of:

    “The list of institutions that received the most money from the Federal Reserve can be found on page 131 of the GAO Audit and are as follows..

    Citigroup: $2.5 trillion ($2,500,000,000,000)
    Morgan Stanley: $2.04 trillion ($2,040,000,000,000)
    Merrill Lynch: $1.949 trillion ($1,949,000,000,000)
    Bank of America: $1.344 trillion ($1,344,000,000,000)
    Barclays PLC (United Kingdom): $868 billion ($868,000,000,000)
    Bear Sterns: $853 billion ($853,000,000,000)
    Goldman Sachs: $814 billion ($814,000,000,000)
    Royal Bank of Scotland (UK): $541 billion ($541,000,000,000)
    JP Morgan Chase: $391 billion ($391,000,000,000)
    Deutsche Bank (Germany): $354 billion ($354,000,000,000)
    UBS (Switzerland): $287 billion ($287,000,000,000)
    Credit Suisse (Switzerland): $262 billion ($262,000,000,000)
    Lehman Brothers: $183 billion ($183,000,000,000)
    Bank of Scotland (United Kingdom): $181 billion ($181,000,000,000)
    BNP Paribas (France): $175 billion ($175,000,000,000)
    and many many more including banks in Belgium of all places

    View the 266-page GAO audit of the Federal Reserve(July 21st, 2011):

  • Barnshee

    “The Kitchen Bar I could take or leave, ”

    The old kitchen bar was a gem the new one .. I could take or leave,

  • Catherine Couvert

    ‘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. ‘
    Yes. The Occupy movement, here or anywhere else, is not about formulating complex government policies or political party manifestos. If they act as a symbol of our times and of the need for change, they have achieved what they set out to do.

  • quality

    All hail the Bittles Bar, Belfast’s best building.

  • karina pozzo

    Hello I am writing from Argentina and with great respect, and I’ll turn to give an opinion of a country that is not mine: in Argentina have existed for years people occupying buildings, beginning with people who really needed a place to live, but when other people noticed the legal vacuum that was in that kind of legislation or, on the other hand, could find the trap to the law, began to occupy the buildings by people who, out there, did not have good intentions, so sue, as the years passed, these squatters took over, literally, buildings, ie, after the struggle between squatters and the state, lawyers and politicians by the state ends up giving them to occupy these buildings. comprometerce they have to pay taxes, and the building is entirely his own after about 5 years of occupation, fully deed: that if! must be skillful in giving a name to that occupation, ie can be a dining room for the homeless, may be a cultural center, etcetera, etcetera …. I see no harm to Ireland to fight for foulbrood is yours, but many times, or at least that’s what happened in Argentina, that these buildings with their profits, not even left for the argetninos, but for our brethren in neighboring countries living in Argentina. my advice is: be careful! it is for the Irish Irish,and the good people, a hug