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The Vacuum Issue 11 spacer Issue 11
Squatting Belfast
by Miriam Turley
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Les Enfant Sans Souci:
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"You can't squat in Belfast. Why? Because you... well you just can't." Draconian laws. Psycho cops. Paramilitaries. Hoods with petrol bombs. Squatting in Northern Ireland presents us with its own unique set of challenges. The very existence of these challenges has been used (and is still used) by generations of hippies, anarchists, punks and autonomists (traditional overt squatters) as an excuse not to bother trying. Not that Northern Ireland is particularly bad in this regard; in every thriving squat scene in Europe, from Amsterdam to Barcelona to London, people report the hardest bit was overcoming the initial fear and pessimism. In Helsinki, Dublin and Belgrade people are just beginning to take part in overt political squatting again and are encountering much the same nihilist apathy, at least initially.
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It Happens:
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On 22 May 1992, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was asked in the House of Commons to give a report on the number of squats in the province. The answer was 555, including 244 in Belfast. In 1971-72, the sectarian fighting in parts of NI led to widespread homelessness and population movement.* In January 1977, there were 6,168 squats in property belonging to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Adding estimates for private property, the number of squatters reached its peak around the same time at 30,000. However then, as now, housing was strictly controlled by our "community defence organisations" whose main objective was to make sure that the right sort of people were living in the right sort of area. As things cooled during the 80s, things became better for the Northern Irish squatter.
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According to Mark Girnson "Out of 3,781 Executive properties squatted in July 1980 court action had only been started against 315 and only 89 of these were awaiting eviction by the bailiffs. Under current legislation, the Executive is obliged to rehouse most evicted squatters, a further deterrent to evicting them".
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Squatting: The Real Story
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Technically, squatting is illegal in Northern Ireland under an act passed in 1946 in response to a wave of squatting initiated, as in England, by returning soldiers. It enables courts to give a maximum of three months imprisonment and a small fine. In practice, the prison sentence is rare and the most we have to fear is violent eviction. Unfortunately, extra-legal action against 'unauthorised' squatting (often the extraction of protection money) is not so rare. Independent control over housing patterns, especially when the motive is overtly political, inspire quite a bit of fear in those organisations which depend on precise dividing lines between communities.
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Sans Souci:
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In September this year, a group of anarchist architecture critics, disapproving of the University's policy of letting dozens of valuable and beautiful buildings lie derelict all over South Belfast, took over former student accommodation at Sans Souci Park off the Malone Road. This building, though listed, had been empty for years as it didn't fit into the University plans to redevelop the area into a prestigious and profitable "Cultural Quarter". We had never expected to stay long, but in fact we lasted nearly three weeks. The building had been badly damaged by a succession of kids who used the place to drink and sniff glue. The kitchen out the back was minging with mildew and the less visible but more sinister rat piss. The floor was covered in a centimeter or so of goo, which turned out to be hair wax, and not ectoplasm as had been speculated. There was excrement in the sinks and puke in the bath.
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So began a frenzy of cleaning, fuse obtaining, window barricading, plumbing, cooking, painting, moving out rubbish and bags of dust, and moving in donations of food for the cafe, furniture, books for the library, candles and light bulbs, paint and brushes, tools, locks, screws and little home comforts like notice boards, ashtrays and the occasional computer. The locks had to be changed and all entries to the house had to be secured.
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A lot of time was spent talking; there were so many ideas and so much enthusiasm. Most people felt strongly that the point of the squat should be to provide a space that people could use to do whatever it is that people do. Belfast lacks free social spaces, places where people can go to meet friends and be creative without having to drink beer or coffee. People aren't encouraged to linger in pubs or cafes unless they are buying beverages, the proceeds of which pay the rent and rates, pay staff and generate profit. A group of people who take over a building which is not being used for anything else can establish a social space, for music, food and chat, and only charge cost price, i.e. what food and electricity cost. There are plenty of people who think that the provision of this space is important enough to work for free. Volunteers get free food and the experience of cooking on a large scale, or facilitating entertainment, or being involved in the decoration of the space, or the publicity.
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The café in Sans Souci would have housed the info shop, with activist info, resources and computer access, and the other large ground floor room had been designated a yoga/tai chi/relaxation space. A squat also gives people a chance at trying out sustainable living. Living and working in a communal space provides the perfect opportunity to have a go at things like compost toilets, urban vegetable gardens, kitchen waste and grey water recycling and experimenting with different ways of keeping the house warm.
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*In fact, some writers attribute the 'official' start of the 'Troubles' to an incident involving a squat in Caledon near Dungannon in which the squatting McKenna family were evicted to make way for the secretary of the local councillor's solicitor. Their next door neighbours, also a squatting family, were evicted a few days later. The resultant publicity triggered one of the first civil rights marches.
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The squat in Sans Souci was evicted after 17 glorious days. In that time all involved got to see how much can be achieved by making the leap and squatting a building. We also got a taste for the potential a place like ours had. At a recent evaluation meeting, a number of points came up under 'what would you do different if you did it again'. A better understanding of our legal situation would have helped. On the day of the eviction we found out that we didn't have any legal status as squatters, and were in fact trespassing. This information was offered as part of the "The police are outside what the fuck do we do" conversation, which was lovely timing. The PSNI thankfully knew less than us, so by pretending that we had rights they didn't know about, we bought ourselves an extra 16 hours. With the knowledge we (and now you) have gained from the experience we can tailor future projects to our special circumstances and needs. Long and short term squats can provide space for the myriad of activities we like to fill our time with. If you have a place in mind that you think you could use, or if you have an idea but nowhere to work, here are some helpful guidelines to get you started in your squatting career.
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DIY Squatting:
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Before deciding to squat. Decide what do you want to use the space for. This will dictate a lot about the building you choose. For example, do you want to squat long or short term? The building squatted for a weekend squat café will be different from a building that you'd like to turn into a social centre.
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Start looking around for somewhere that you like the look of. There's an excess of usable derelict buildings in Belfast. This can get a bit addictive once you've started looking, and you're constantly sizing up buildings you pass in terms of ease of entry, suitability of location, layout and size.
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Think about who owns the building (find out from land registry), how soon they will notice you’re there, and how they will react to knowledge that you are there, e.g. send the paras round/get the PSNI to kick youse out/won't even notice because they live in Sussex.
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Before You Begin Occupation:
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Know how many people are going to be able to put the hours in, and how many hours each can spare. We found it difficult to keep the house constantly manned. This is because we overestimated the amount of interest and involvement that would materialise when the squat was established, and found that a small group of people had to spend most of their lives in the squat for the two and a bit weeks. While incredibly good fun, this responsibility was at many times also an inconvenience.
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Some exploratory visits are good to give you an idea of what kind of equipment you'll need, and what kind of state the place is in. Keep an eye out for health and safety problems like rotting floorboards, possible fire hazards or hygiene problems. These visits should obviously be kept as low profile as possible.
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An action plan, (ideally with contingency plans) in the event of an attempted eviction is a must. People can't start talking about whether or not they want to be arrested when the police are breaking the door in. A general strategy for what you hope to achieve with a time scale is also a good idea, even if you end up not sticking to it.
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Once You're In:
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If you'll need to barricade yourselves in from the first night you will need all the materials necessary to do it.
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Keep your media strategy clear; knowing how much you can tell your mates, the media and/or your cousin who's a cop will avoid a lot of problems. Depending on the nature of the squat, information may be very closely guarded, including the location or even existence of the squat. Talking to the wrong people at the wrong time could spell the end for your project and some hassle from the police for your mates.
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Communication is really important. Hopefully you'll all know each other pretty well and there'll be no problems, but getting in and running round painting mending and cleaning like a mad thing is too much craic, and it's easy to put off having formal meetings to talk about issues as they arise. Regular, frequent and well organised/structured meetings will pay very tangible dividends in the long run. You may need to be talking about your hopes and fears, the sanitation situation, your drink and drugs policy, security or what to do about the funny smell in the hall.
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If or when the police arrive you don't have to let them in, and they can't force entry unless they have reasonable grounds to believe you are breaking the law (there are other reasons they can use, e.g. fears for your health and safety, but they do need a legit reason, so you can argue with them if you think they're bullshitting. Or you could just whack up the barricades and shout abuse instead, it's up to you). They'll say whatever it takes to get you to open up, so you'll need a cool head and people who know what they're at at this point. Have a list of phone numbers handy to ring for reinforcements.
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So there you go, it's as easy as getting stuck in and getting stuff started.
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See www.squat.freeserve.co.uk for the Advisory Service for Squatters, where you can find details on how to get the Squatters handbook, a useful little gem. If in doubt, embrace paranoia, always take a candle with you to the toilet and discover the joys and pitfalls of communal beds. Happy Squatting!
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Squatting Belfast
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