Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Occupy Belfast protesters at bank may get a visit from council inspectors

Protesters Jessica Fox (left) and Cathy pictured in the old Bank of Ireland building on Royal Avenue in Belfast
Protester Keith pictured in the old Bank of Ireland building on Royal Avenue in Belfast
Protesters camp at Writers' Square in Belfast city centre

The remaining Occupy Belfast protesters who set up camp in a city centre square last October have moved into a derelict bank they plan to convert into a cafe.

And it has emerged that council environmental health officials could be sent in to inspect the premises.

As the last of the Occupy London camp at St Paul’s Cathedral was being forcibly dismantled this week, demonstrators in Belfast were voluntarily removing their makeshift marquee and tents to focus on the disused Bank of Ireland building on Royal Avenue.

Belfast’s protest has proved remarkably resilient, as other Occupy protests — including Occupy Wall Street, which brought the movement to global attention — were broken up by the authorities.

Occupy London’s high-profile protest at St Paul’s lasted four-and-a-half months camped outside the landmark church.

Tuesday’s eviction, enforced by police, began five days after Occupy London was denied permission to appeal orders to evict protesters.

And in Dublin, Occupy Dame Street’s protesters have been asked by the Garda to remove themselves from the site before St Patrick’s Day on March 17.

But Occupy Belfast’s protest at Writers’ Square never faced any legal moves from the Department for Regional Development, which is understood to own the land, or any other authority to evict them from their Donegall Street base.

UUP councillor Jim Rodgers believes the camp has been an eyesore.

“It's time for them to pack up. They've made their point, why continue?” he said.

As the focus of the protest shifts to plans for the old Bank of Ireland, the campaigners have yet to be contacted by the disused building’s owner, and a Court Service NI spokeswoman said, to her knowledge, no complaint has been received.

Nor can police immediately intervene unless there is criminal damage, as trespass is a civil matter.

The Take Back The City element of Occupy Belfast has been squatting in the bank since January 15.

It has lain empty for a decade and campaigners now intend to open the premises they have dubbed ‘The People’s Bank’ to the public soon.

“We are optimistic about the future,” said protester Jack White.

“We hope to open the building as a social centre, including a library and eating space.

“We have heard nothing from the owner at all.

“There is a rumour circulating that he bought the building very cheap. I’m surprised he hasn't been in tou ch.”

Mr Rodgers said he was concerned to learn Occupy hopes to turn the building into a cafe.

“I'll be asking the council's environmental health department to inspect it,” he said.

“I doubt they could bring it up to regulation. They are occupying a building they don't own or rent.”



They’ve got water, power... and a roof garden may be next

Almost 50 days after first taking over a disused building right in the heart of Belfast city centre, protesters were last night preparing the bank to be the main focus for Occupy Belfast.

The symbolism of setting up an anti-capitalist camp in a former bank — a grand art deco grade B listed building — is lost on no-one.

But since police Land Rovers staked out the takeover in mid-January, little has been heard of the Bank of Ireland protest.

That is not to say that the protesters have not been busy — the interior has been cleaned and the walls painted. There are even plans for a roof garden. Inside ]the disused building, there is now power after volunteer electricians set up a limited supply for the building.

Protesters still sleep in tents, albeit indoors, and facilities are far from luxury.

While there is a kettle, toaster, tea and milk, there’s no cooker and no visible sign of running water. Instead, bottles are filled and the squatters go home to shower, or use facilities in the nearby Art College.

Protester numbers have grown with people from across Northern Ireland, England, Poland, Romania and the Basque region now involved. It’s reckoned that 20 people could live there.

Gone is the blue and white Bank of Ireland branding to be replaced with an egg-shell colour or “Irish skin”, as one young woman joked.

The occupiers have received a number of items from supporters, including food, heaters, blankets and furniture. A desk is scattered with Occupy information leaflets, a trade union diary, soap and, curiously, a Belfast edition of the Monopoly board game.

Art works are being stockpiled to decorate the place at a later date and a large library of books has been created.

Titles range from Lets Discuss Drinking, Quick Crosswords and Physical Chemistry to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography.

A huge blackboard is marked with chalk, detailing the Occupy Belfast committees that have been formed.

Responsibilities for research, outreach, legal, media, education, environment and health and safety have been delegated and there is also a rota for day-to-day chores.

A stage is being built, a compost bin is in place and an old bath is set to house vegetables when the proposed roof garden, complete with windmill, comes to fruition.

The group’s vision for the future is starting to take shape, but there is still much work to be done before the ambitious plans to open the building to the public as a social centre can be realised.

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