Where next for Occupy Belfast as they occupy second building?


On the anniversary of the Wall Street occupation which sparked a global movement and captured media attention, Occupy Belfast acquired a second building.  A statement released on the groups Facebook page reads ‘members of the Occupy Belfast Movement took a step towards expanding the movement’s reach by taking control of a multi-unit residential property in an undisclosed location in Belfast. The movement aims to establish permanent control of the property, as it has achieved at its primary venue on Royal Avenue, and plans to disclose the location of the new property as soon as it becomes viable.

This move was made to further the movement’s long-term protest about the coexistence of high rates of homelessness and of property abandonment in Belfast. The movement also hopes to draw attention to the new anti-squatting regulation rolled out in England and Wales in the past fortnight which it believes was meant to legally target its fellow movements in other cities, but which will have far reaching negative repercussions for Squatter communities across those countries.

Although many readers may be aware that the global Occupy Movement started a year ago has lost momentum in much of Europe and North America, some may also know that this is not the case in Belfast. Our Occupy Movement is the only one on the British Isles to have publicly held an occupied building through the summer. As the weather turns cold, and homelessness becomes a far more pressing issue for the homeless themselves, the Belfast Movement feels that the time has come to expand our operation for the benefit of the homeless and those of us below the poverty line and at the expense of the renter class of landowners. A useful statistic to remember is that 29,000 people in NI are registered as homeless and there is enough room for an estimated 50,000 in the empty buildings in Belfast.

Occupy Belfast established itself as a tented camp in Writer's square in the city centre a month after the global movement began in New York. In January of this year, the movement transferred into the former Bank of Ireland building on Royal Avenue. The Belfast Occupy is one of the largest remaining in the world, of a similar size and influence to the movements in London, New York and San Francisco.’

While the occupation of a second residential building is a welcome development in terms of providing some form of immediate shelter for homeless people, squatting can only be a short-term measure for what is ultimately a structural problem tied to a lack of social and affordable housing and gentrification which is a product of a savage neo-liberal agenda being imposed by our local Stormont administration.

Grander references in the statement to Occupy Belfast being ‘one of the largest remaining in the world, of a similar size and influence to the movements in London, New York and San Francisco’ is not only factually incorrect, a delusionary symptom of an activism for the sake of activism but masks deeper underlying conflicts concerning its direction and wider strategy.

Since the occupation of the former Bank of Ireland headquarters in Royal Avenue, Occupy Belfast has completely reduced in size to only a handful of committed activists and followers despite the best efforts and intentions of others under the Peoples Bank(an off-shoot of Occupy Belfast) in seeking to build an actual movement around public debates and discussions, able to make links with common struggles inside and out of the workplace.

The Peoples Bank sought to actually focus on building a social centre 'providing a glimpse of what is possible if we use direct action and solidarity, alternatives that are based on mutual aid, understanding, participation, self-help and co-operation. We seek to build links and with like-minded groups and individuals who are committed a new society based on social and economic justice for all and ending the greed and exploitation of the small minority.' (1) While the project was far from perfect we were constantly hindered by a small element living in the building intent on disrupting any direction and sense of responsibility and democratic organisation. The consequences of this was exhaustion and further alienation of potential supporters who might be interested in getting involved.

Along with public protests, the General assembly and cutting edge of the global movement has also declined in frequency and consistency in Belfast to such an extent that they no longer take place publically and is tied to a general lack of collective and individual responsibility in terms of creating a safer space for all.

After taking part in the initial occupation and wider movement, I wrote in an article a few months ago on what next for Occupy Belfast (http://www.wsm.ie/c/what-next-occupy-belfast-march2012) and referred to this ‘We have made the first step in a long political journey providing a small glimpse of our potential power, if we take direct action where we live and work around concrete issues, linking with workplace occupations to house evictions and beyond. What is clear is that Occupy Belfast is not an end in itself and new movements will spring from it which is more concrete and relevant to the day to day issues faced by our class. Ultimately, we need to re-build and re-analysis our ‘movement’ from below upwards combining thought with action in terms of internal organisation and the direction we want to take which cannot be rushed over for sake of running from one action to the next.’

However in response to critics of the Occupy movement, Aditya Chakrabortty writing in The Guardian newspaper recently pointed out ‘it also clear that I would like to see Occupy engage with making positive demands about what kind of future we should have, rather than what kind of present we don't. But to expect a one-year-old movement to unfurl a detailed replacement for neo-liberalism is to ask more of a bunch of twentysomethings than we expect from trade unions, NGOs or Ed Miliband and Barack Obama’ (2)

What is clear that our answers will never come from appealing to politicians because they are part of the problem rather than the solution. We need to move beyond gesture protests towards to building and uniting resistance across the sectarian divide because Occupy Belfast has barely registered on the public psyche in Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen whether this second occupation will serve as a rallying point or submerge into another round of infighting and the egos of a few activists cut off from the where transformation really lies- in our communities and workplaces. What is clear is that this process cannot be divorced from a political analysis that places the central question of class and revolutionary transformation on the agenda linked with the struggle for a better society and question of what type of society do we want? As anarchists, the solution is in one where we realise our own potential class power, we can finally take control of our lives, our communities and workplaces’ free from exploitation, alienation and oppression. This future, a libertarian communist one, is truly a future worth fighting for.

WORDS: Sean Matthews

1) http://www.facebook.com/ThePeoplesBankBelfast/info

2) http://apps.facebook.com/theguardian/commentisfree/2012/sep/17/occupy-ye...