Brief thoughts on the utility of ‘breaking the rules’…

Interesting to hear the focus of the debate shift from homelessness around Occupy’s, erm occupation of the old art deco Bank of Ireland building (prompted we think by Gerry pointing out they’d had their metaphorical tanks parked on the wrong lawn) on Monday’s Nolan to a raft of issues yesterday. Amongst them the destruction of Belfast’s built heritage, and the latent value of empty property.

The very inchoat nature of the protest. Caller after caller accused the protesters of doing something akin to moving into someone else’s house, and suggesting that this property (which in my limited experience of walking past it) has been empty for a considerable period of time, might be being prepared for some constructive use by it’s private owner.

Interestingly when one of the occupiers (a better word than protestor, I think) he said they would welcome contact with the owner and might, he suggested come to some kind of understanding if not agreement about what might happen next.

What’s been refreshing has been the very leftfield nature of the occupation. The discussion on Monday was nicely capped by a touch of PR genius from DUP press guy Chris Stalford who agreed with the protestors without seeming to approve of their actions by giving out a phone number relating to homelessness. But the continuance of the occupation has merely allowed the conversation to move on.

It’s been a long time coming. But I suspect the impact of a group of people acting outside of the normal rules of engagement may yet have a refreshing effect on public discourse in a space where almost every form of political discourse is defined and controlled by an incumbency that’s rarely troubled by an effective ‘challenge function’ beyond a reflexive tabloid ire at any figure of public expenditure that ‘looks’ big.

Eamonn McCann has said, more than once, that protest works. But it’s not just the protest that matters. Occupy may be demonstrating that it’s the breaking of comfortable public narratives and public expectation that can work. In Belfast people once did that by blowing up its built environment to jerk people out of ‘business as usual’.

In that sense, the occupation of the old BOI may have worked, even if it only creates the space to see the familiar in very different terms. Perhaps our politicians up on the hill might learn a trick or two?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty