Occupy Belfast: One Year On


Red Flag flies over the 'Peoples' Bank' Photograph: Tyler McNally

This time last year, the media was awash with pictures of the newest campsite in America. Activists, veterans, and the average American, downtrodden by the economic crisis and disheartened with the party political system, formed Occupy Wall Street and took to Zuccotti Park, New York, in their thousands. They refused to move until capitalism was destroyed. This radical public action inspired hundreds of affiliated occupations throughout the world, including the seizure of a former Bank of Ireland building by Occupy Belfast. However, twelve months after the phrase “we are the 99%” took hold, the police have moved in, the tents have come down, and one by one, activists have gone home, leaving the world to wonder what the Occupy movement is going to do next.

Occupy Belfast is one of the few remaining groups that have managed to stay put. When they began camping in Writers Square on the 20 October 2011, around thirty people moved in and organised workshops and actions to inspire the masses and take on global capitalism. Now, just a handful of hard core activists remain, supported by a growing number of homeless people. With fewer people involved nowadays the occupation rarely organises events, and this begs the question; is there still a point to Occupy Belfast?

An activist who has since moved out of the building, says that in its heyday, the movement “gave a voice to the unemployed and disenfranchised of Belfast, and not just trade unionists and students.” By taking control of the building, she argues that they “highlighted the ridiculousness of how many houses are derelict in Belfast”, and challenged the culture of high rents.

Joel, who is still residing in the bank confirmed this, saying that they are “trying to help people rebuild their lives. I’ve been through years of homelessness in this city, so I know what it’s like.” He paints a bleak picture of a housing situation in crisis, and combined with the current governmental cuts to welfare through the Welfare Reform Act, says that “it’s disgusting how we’re letting down the weakest and most vulnerable in society.” Occupy Belfast is described as an alternative way of addressing this crisis, but not as a single issue campaign. Joel says that “it’s not just housing, everything has to be changed. We can’t have an unfair system in any way.”

Occupy Belfast is taking the future day by day, but Joel is confident that on the one year anniversary of the movement, activists will begin to get involved again. “People are waking up, just look at Europe. Our government is not going to do anything for us, and I think that in this country we are tired of hurting each other.” He ends the interview on an optimistic note for the entire Occupy movement, with the belief that Occupy can show that “there is more behind the idea of freedom than oppression.”

Will they be here this time next year? Their endurance has paid off so far. Let’s wait and see what the Occupiers do next.