The Big Interview: People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll
Man on a mission to be thorn in the side of the status quo
Rebecca Black talks to Gerry Carroll, People Before Profit's first elected councillor in Northern Ireland, about his objective to think global, act local, and to offer people an alternative to traditional politics.
Q. How did you first get involved in activism?
A. When I was 16, we organised a bus load of school students from west Belfast to go over to the Make Poverty History protest in Edinburgh against global inequality, hunger, third world debt. For me that was the first proper activism. We fundraised on the streets to help us pay for a bus over to Edinburgh. The feeling was incredible and that was how I got the bug for it.
Q. What came next after you started to be active?
A. In 2003 there were walkouts in schools across west Belfast over the Iraq war, and I took part in that (Gerry attended St Mary's CBS). Even though it was thousands of miles away, I was watching what was going on via the TV and was very sceptical about the reasons for going into Iraq – and they (the protesters) were proved right.
I felt this war was a lie and there was a deep sense of injustice. Along with thousands of others, I walked out of school.
I began to read up about global issues, questioned what was going on and developed an interest in left-wing radical politics.
Q. Tell me about your education.
A. I did A-Levels in politics, pyschology and religion and went on to the University of Ulster at Jordanstown where I studied politics.
I got involved with student politics such as the Love Music Hate Racism campaign, student fees – we had demonstrations up at Stormont about fees and other issues, for example the privatising of the canteen at university.
I was elected as student union president at Jordanstown and served for two years. There is a history of that here in the 1960s, a radical student tradition campaigning for civil rights.
Obviously it is a different context now, but I felt there should be left-wing representation within the students' union campaigning for students on local issues but also in the bigger picture about Palestine and the wars in the Middle East as well as sectarianism which I felt needed to be addressed.
Q. Did you get involved with any political parties at university?
A. I got involved with People Before Profit on campus and on different campaign issues.
Q. Were you never tempted to join Ogra Shinn Fein or the SDLP Youth that would be strong in west Belfast where you grew up? Were you ever approached to join?
A. Not that I can recall. To be honest, it never really appealed to me, nationalist politics or that variation of Sinn Fein republican politics.
I was looking at what was going on across the world, trying to make sense of it.
I was looking for a political organisation that represented the old saying, think global, act local. With those local parties, I felt they were quite comfortable in positions of power. They had their own issues but to me they were never questioning the logic of capitalism.
Q. How is your relationship with nationalist parties in City Hall?
A. On some issues I would agree with them, for example, Palestine, but there is a lot of issues I wouldn't agree with them on.
The bigger point has to be made, they say they are socialists but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Being a socialist means standing up against inequality, against cuts, supporting workers such as council workers on strike.
Q. Where do you stand on the constitutional question?
A. I call myself a socialist, in the north there are always labels, people asking what you are, I would say I am trying for a new label and that is socialism. That means, to be frank, not being content and happy with the sectarian state.
In Northern Ireland sectarianism is at the heart of the state. I don't accept that, but then again I don't accept the conservative right-wing state in the south. I'd prefer to talk about the road less travelled, a socialist Ireland for everyone, Catholic, Protestant, migrant and other.
I don't hear anyone else saying that, and that's why our brand of politics is a breath of fresh air.
Q. You were once banned from Belfast city centre?
A. I was involved with the student protest in 2010 about the increase to university fees. I was involved in the protests and was arrested for blocking a road just outside City Hall.
It was a peaceful protest, we were forced to be sitting on the road. I was arrested and as a result banned from the city centre. I wasn't allowed to attend events unless I notified police. That lasted about a year.
I was arrested after that for leafleting outside McDonald's, they said it was a protest but it was just an information table. All that for peaceful protests, you'd think you had done something criminal.
Q. You were still banned from the city centre when you first stood for election?
A. Yes, in 2011 I ran for the Assembly for West Belfast. I got 1,661 votes. About two weeks later I stood in the by-election after Gerry Adams resigned his seat, it was a bit of a rush but it was a good campaign because people who voted in the Assembly election got the chance to repeat it, there needed to be an alternative, people were looking for an alternative. We increased our vote to 1,751, we were the only party to increase our vote in that election.
Q. Yet you were seen as a dark horse in the council elections earlier this year?
A. We thought we had a chance, and if the media had looked at it from afar they would have seen that. Most media outlets didn't give us a look-in, they were talking about people who had no real record on the ground or who hadn't stood before. Groups like NI21 for example. The likes of ourselves stood before and had a good record on the ground yet we were pushed to the side.
For us on the ground, we had been supporting residents at Casement Park where no other politicians were, campaigning against the overdevelopment of green space, student fees, the cuts to the Health Service.
I think that, coupled with the political argument of an alternative, and that politicians were too comfortable, chimed in with what people thought.
I know before people would have said good luck to you but west Belfast is too dominated by one party, the truth is that these things happen the way they do. People wanted an alternative.
Q. Were Sinn Fein shocked by losing a seat to you?
A. Yeah, absolutely, I think there are specific local issues in west Belfast that got me elected, things like fear of welfare cuts, concern about NHS and the fact that politicians feel too comfortable.
Those general principles exist across the north, and People Before Profit is the only political movement which is expressing those concerns and trying to find a resolution. We are now expanding to form new branches across the north.
Q. Is being an elected councillor what you expected?
A. Kind of. My position was to go in and be a thorn in the side, disturber of the political peace. In my first two meetings I have been raising the point about pay increases for politicians at the same time council workers are on strike because they have had an effective pay cut for the last number of years.
Why should there be one law for politicians and another for the workers?
There was an uncomfortable silence in council when I raised it. That's the reason why I got into politics, to highlight those issues.
Q. The argument for super councillors to be paid more was so people would do it as a full-time job, do you accept that point?
A. Stand alone you could maybe address that point, but things happened in the context where people are saying that belts have to be tightened and budget cuts.
So you have the situation where council workers who actually keep the council running are being told they have to accept a pay cut, and politicians are not coming out in support of them.
You have one thing happening for politicians at the top of the council and another for people at the coal-face. It's a contradiction.
Q. What are your plans for council?
A. I am working on a few local regeneration plans and some individual case work.
But in terms of politics, one of the big issues at the minute is Palestine, we are supporting a motion to twin Belfast with a city in the occupied territories.
The issue of Palestine exposes the brutality of the world and the global system.
We have two million people squeezed into Gaza, an area smaller than the Isle of Man and being blown to bits by bombs – families destroyed, medical centres destroyed.
It's a disgusting situation.
Q. But unionists are opposing it?
A. It's very sad when you have people trying to make this a sectarian issue, trying to make it seem like if you are from a certain community you have to support Israel, or only people from (the) nationalist community back Gaza.
But the truth is, in Belfast people attending the Gaza protests have been from all religions.
Across the world millions of people are calling for freedom for Gaza.
It'll be coming up at the September meeting; other councils have flown flags for Palestine and had motions of support for Palestine.
I think it would be a fantastic thing for Belfast to make a stand.
There have been thousands here protesting in support of Gaza from all backgrounds and none.
It would be a fantastic message for Belfast City Council to say to Palestinians, we stand by you, we stand in solidarity with you.
Q. What did you think of George Galloway's comments about boycotting Israeli goods?
A. The call to boycott Israeli goods comes from 2005 when there was a call from the West Bank from a range of organisations to do so.
That is something I would support, it's a point about human rights and highlighting what is happening to the Palestinians. It's something everyone should get involved in.
Every generation has its issue that defines it – in the 1980s it was apartheid, in the 1930s it was the Spanish Civil War and I think for this generation it is Palestine, that is the issue.
Q. Should George Galloway be allowed to speak at the Ulster Hall?
A. Yes. I would support some of the things Galloway would say.
The DUP are trying to create a storm in a teacup, they are focusing on Galloway but they are not speaking out about the Palestinians.
They are even setting up Friends of Israel groups and setting themselves up as supporters of Israel.
It really defies belief to be honest when you see the amount of war crimes Israel is accused of, the amount of UN sanctions they have broken. Yet the DUP again are behind the times and supporting the Israeli state.
Q. Did you condemn the attacks on the synagogue?
A. .Absolutely, we spoke out against such attacks at the march we organised on the US Consulate.
Everyone in the demonstration supported the call not to engage in attacks like this.
I called up the synagogue and expressed my solidarity and said I am a supporter of the Palestinian people but I am very much against anti-Semitism. I am dead against racism in any form.
People Before Profit organised the protests against the racist attacks in Belfast, it wasn't the DUP.
And, in fact, Peter Robinson was the one who came out and offended with his comments about Muslims.
Q. Does it not seem a little fruitless campaigning about things that are happening thousands of miles away? Don't you get frustrated?
A. Definitely, but the old thing (is) about people power and that is what we are about. The protests against the Iraq War didn't stop it but it made the British Government not invade Syria because of the anti-war sentiment.
When Moazzam Begg was detained in Guantanamo Bay, locked up for 24 hours with a hood on, he said the thing that kept him going was that he heard through the guards about millions of people across the world protesting against the war.
You can feel a sense of frustration about Palestine because you feel, like, what can you do?
But the people of Palestine see the solidarity that exists across the world and it gives them hope to continue.
People power topples governments and dictators and is the only force that really achieved change in society.
Q. Do you try to avoid buying from big corporations such as Coca-Cola?
A. Yes. Coca-Cola has a horrible history in Colombia and other places.
It's great if people can do these things and I'd encourage them to do it.
Q. So we'll not catch you sitting in McDonald's, drinking a Coke?
A. I just wouldn't do it. Definitely not!