Royal Avenue, Belfast’s main city centre thoroughfare, mixes classic architecture with more obviously new arrivals. On the corner of Royal Avenue and North Street lies a grand, art deco building that used to house a branch of the Bank of Ireland and the (long-gone) Belfast Stock Exchange. Having laid silent and bare for over a decade, it has been given new life after members of Occupy Belfast seized the building in a ‘repossession’ action, branding it ‘The People’s Bank.’
Since announcing their presence in the building on January 16th, the Occupiers have had a much louder platform than their previous tent-dotted space at Writer’s Square – a short distance away, but without the access to tens of thousands of daily commuters and passers-by that The People’s Bank now provides.
Unimaginative critics say that it is a pointless protest, because ‘it isn’t a bank anymore.’ The point seems deliberately lost on them; the repossession of the bank is symbolic of what threatens many across Northern Ireland – repossession and homelessness. It presents opportunities to create a community space to raise awareness of their plight, while creating a space similar to East London’s Bank of Ideas.
At a rally of support outside the bank, veteran civil rights campaigner Eamonn McCann spoke of how the occupation didn’t fit into the traditional discourse of Northern Ireland politics. To put it another way, the traditional commentators and political parties’ reaction to this has been basically ‘does not compute.’ Their reaction highlights a growing observation that although the Good Friday Agreement delivered the end of (most) political violence, it has failed to deliver any real social justice or a conventional democratic discourse. The Assembly lacks any official opposition and the nationalist / unionist blocs dominate debate. Belfast in particular remains more divided than ever, with over 88 ‘peace walls’ separating diverging communities – more than double what existed in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Occupy is a cry that many very serious social issues are just not being handled at all by any of the political parties that make up the Northern Ireland Executive.
Others say the protest will have no effect. But just as the influence of Occupy in the US is causing the hitherto unthinkable spectacle of rabid free-marketeer millionaire Republicans slamming each other as ‘crony capitalists’ in the primaries, a sustained public dialogue here about income inequality and the uneven distribution of power and wealth to the rich can only be good. Thus, Occupy has the power to change the conversation.
You might say it’s already having an effect in peculiarly Northern Irish ways. The self-proclaimed ‘Biggest Show in the Country,’ the Stephen Nolan Show, was forced to debate income inequality and the plight of the most vulnerable as it reacted to the occupation. This was a bit of a twist away from the usual (mostly utterly banal) topics of the show.
It has also stirred the awakening of the shared memory and history of housing and land disputes. Most obviously, land and housing (and the deprivation of both), led in part to the start of the modern-day troubles at the end of the 1960s.
Eamonn McCann recalled how in 1968, the squatters in Derry housed more people that year than the local authority. In Belfast through the 60s and 70s, rent strikes were used against unfair increases in rent. Given the large and growing numbers of tenants in NI living in the largely unregulated private rented sector, combined with the exasperation of even the charities concerned with homelessness at the cost of social housing and housing associations, this is the right time to start unearthing some of that forgotten history.
More tangibly, the activists are busy cleaning the inside of the building and plan to open up the bank to the homeless and to local communities.
The challenge now is for the occupiers to use the space to stimulate debate and activism and for the local people to side with them in large numbers to prevent any eviction attempt. If you’re in Belfast, please support them in any way you can.