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The Vacuum Issue 11 spacer Issue 11
Blackmarket Belfast
by Jason Mills
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A few months ago Belfast had the dubious honour of hosting the UK's first international conference on organised crime. Behind the glittering façade of the Waterfront Hall (where else?) various foreign dignitaries, self-professed experts and official representatives scoffed tea and biscuits whilst pontificating on the plethora of money-making rackets which make up the informal economy. No doubt a rigorous examination of all jewellery, clothing and other paraphernalia was executed by scrupulous security guards to ensure that everything was bona fide before attendees were allowed to pass unequivocally through those big revolving doors. As with all such probings into the mechanics of low culture, we can only imagine the sense of self-congratulatory aloofness which must have permeated the air, brought on by glowing annual reports and glossy police crime statistics.
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Lets have a look at some of the jewels in the crown of the PSNI Chief Constable's 2002 report:
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"Almost £7 million worth of fake designer clothing, CDs, videos, computer games and software seized - more than all other UK police services combined; Over £11 million pounds worth of illicit drugs seized, compared with under £7 million in the same period last year, and Over £750,000 worth of counterfeit notes and coins, an increase of 110% on the year before."
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Add to this £660,000 of goods confiscated at Nutts Corner, Jonesboro and St Georges Market alongside hundreds of thousands of cigarettes at the airport and you'd be forgiven for thinking that you would be able to sleep like a baby every night as the PSNI and Organised Crime Task Force (set up in 2001 to ponder over the spiralling figures) safeguard your existence against unspecified shadowy figures. The flipside of this however suggests differently, with detection rates of around just 5%. In a recent Belfast Telegraph article the Detective Superintendent managed to sum it neatly up and drop in a potentially tourist-snaring Titanic reference when he conceded these successes were "the tip of the iceberg".
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Like all other UK cities the black market sprang up in Belfast during the Second World War when rations and general shortages created a demand. Described at the time by Labour MP Joseph Cleynes as "treason of the worst kind" its maintenance has nevertheless been largely facilitated by successive governments with their continuous hiking up of excise duties. With British taxes the highest in Europe, fake, smuggled and stolen goods flow in abundance through Northern Ireland's ports and airports as well as across the land border with the Republic. Of course, being Northern Ireland, it's only natural that our old friends the paramilitaries are in this up to their necks, with police intelligence suggesting that about two-thirds of the 100 or so known professional criminal gangs operating in the country have the relevant links. All things considered, contraband goods earn the various terrorist groups here around £150m a year - a tidy sum and no mistake. Chances are if you work in a factory in the city you'll know who to go to for your cheap indulgences - no questions asked obviously. Likewise, housing estates across town and beyond harbour all manner of locally known small sellers, from taxi firms to the archetypal 'wee woman down the road' who knocks out dodgy cigarettes from the comfort of her living room. In any case the likelihood of such goods having passed through the hands of post-ceasefire paramilitary entrepreneurs is relatively high.
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However, it is within such circles that the malevolent and the facetious often converge in the manner so emblematic of these parts. A case in point occurred when, in the run-up to Halloween, an undercover BBC Newsline reporter stumbled upon a furniture shop on the Donegall Road selling fireworks to people without a license. After the transaction had been completed without fuss, the shopkeeper suddenly realised he was being filmed the whole time and promptly disappeared from the premises leaving the bemused reporter and cameraman standing alone at his unattended business. It took around fifteen minutes before two hard men arrived and pulled the shutters down, politely thanking the two gentlemen of the media for their interest in the matter and bidding them bon voyage back to their studio. The BBC report did appear to ruffle a few feathers in the economic underbelly but nevertheless fireworks were still available on request around the city centre stalls for £25 a large box (£5 discount if you use them to fire at the 'other side' at a sectarian flashpoint of your own choosing).
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Blackmarket Belfast
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Another manifestation of the black market in Belfast is the legendary and ever-popular delivery services. Whatever your poison (pizza, poteen, pills?) there are several fairly widely circulating phone numbers operated by upstanding members of the community more than happy to deal with your request. Within the hour you'll have an authentic working-class Belfast youth on your doorstep with pocketfuls of the (microwaved) soil and superglue mix that passes for hash here, or a boot full of booze. Actually, the whole Dial-a-Drug operation calls to mind a local urban myth about the Queens student who, having saved the relevant number under 'D-A-D', proceeded to inadvertently get it mixed up with 'Dad' and phoned his father's mobile at 4am asking him to come round with some more E and a quarter please. Indeed, the only lull in these covert proceedings allegedly occurred around the same time that the Seacat almost sank under the weight of gold jewellery after assorted local personalities decided to take an impromptu one-way trip to Scotland. Which gives you some idea of who you could be dealing with.
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Drugs aside, if official sources are to be believed the whole industry in ersatz products is not only upsetting Gordon Brown but also making the big High Street chain stores think twice about setting up shop in Belfast. The underlying irony of this situation is that the cunning, ubiquitous marketing strategies developed by global superbrands directed at weaving their products into the very fabric of human society are now being turned against them. Just as label-worship tightens its grip on consumerist habits and everything appears to be going to plan, enterprising chancers unconsciously step in to perform a two-fingered culture jam in the face of this saturation by using brand exaltation for their own ends. And although the moral implications of producing, say a few thousand fake Man United shirts, may point to all manner of opaque and shady corners, what of the macabre Export Process Zones dotted intermittently across various Third World landscapes to take advantage of cheap labour markets? Is this supposedly 'legitimate' criminality thereby acceptable? One enduring, almost poignant, image springs to mind from last Christmas when I spotted a few back-of-a-lorry, battery powered GI Joe figures with machine-guns crawling through piles of socks on the tables of the street traders. Having broken away from the mainstream toy manufacturing rat race, they seemed to be embroiled in some form of surreal out-of-scale guerrilla war against the unsuspecting masses on Royal Avenue laden with their assortment of bursting shopping bags.
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So, as the stall owners and sex shop proprietors contend with the wrath of the draconian City Council and the usual Christmas High Street profit drive gets off the ground, it really comes down to a case of personal choice. In many ways the black market here defines the life of the people and the true heartbeat of the city much more acutely than the rhetoric of those who would happily see it become a characterless clone consisting of sterile shopping malls and Titanic themed restaurants. For example, a jaunt to the hustle and bustle of the Friday market at St. Georges (not 25 yards from where the crime conference was held) will reveal much fishiness in both senses of the word, not to mention more evidence of those coexistent sinister and humorous forces. One table, manned by several high-spirited heavies (complete with a 'runner' so that not too much merchandise was on displayto the potential prying eyes of the authorities) had different brands of cigarettes laid out in packets of 200 alongside the only other item seemingly for sale - a strategically placed Johnny Adair biography. Paying £3 for a packet of Marlboro Lights, I posed to the ringleader whether or not they did in fact get much hassle from the local constabulary. "Cops?! What cops?!!" came the swaggering, tumultuous reply "We never fought this war for 30 years to have cops in Bellfawst!". Er, right then. Cheerio. Anyway, if you fancy a quiet night in curled up with a packet of fags and a good book (cough, splutter) at least now you know how to kill two birds with one stone. You never know, they might even be able to sort you out with a bit of cheap hot chocolate too.
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Blackmarket Belfast
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