Sunday, 24 February 2013

Why I'm not #BackinBelfast

The #BackinBelfast campaign launched in the wake of the devastating effect the loyalist flag protests were having on Belfast city centre. It started off as a relatively low key hashtag campaign on Twitter, and quickly erupted into a full blown, council and Executive backed campaign. Local newspapers are on board, with offers for various clubs, pubs and restaurants throughout the city being advertised daily in an attempt to revitalise the city centre and to increase the footfall that had been drastically affected in the wake of the seemingly never-ending loyalist protests.

The campaign launched at the end of January in a desperate attempt for the traders of the city to try to regain some of their lost revenue. Since the protests began in December, around 150 police officers have been injured, and the Confederation of British Industry have estimated that around £15 million has been lost in trade due to the protests. Pre-Christmas sales were badly affected, and the situation only seemed to go from bad to worse as time marched on. The cost of policing the protests is estimated to have exceeded £15 million. The Northern Irish Executive released a press statement at the end of January, declaring its support for the campaign, with Arlene Foster stating that it is essential for us to support our local businesses in what are very trying trading conditions.

So why am I not #BackinBelfast? I have a number of reasons. 

In typical Northern Irish fashion, we think that by throwing some money at the problem and having a colourful poster campaign, we actually solve what was wrong in the first place. We haven't. And no one is prepared to admit it. Whilst we have been holding hands with the 'other side' and proclaiming our love for our city centre, a 'unionist unity' candidate has been selected for the Mid-Ulster by-election, the Northern Irish Housing Executive is going to be abolished (with the possible loss of 400 public sector jobs, and hugely increased risk of privatisation), and two UUP MLAs have left the party in opposition to the recent actions undertaken by its leader, Mike Nesbitt.

The estimated amount that has gone into the campaign stands at around £1.5 million, with £400,000 directly from Belfast City Council and £600,000 from the Executive. The campaign has had great publicity, whilst the fact that countless death threats, bullets, and intimidation towards our elected representatives has pretty much been forgotten about in the past month or so. Some of those who were the targets of death threats may stand in polar opposition to what I stand for, but that doesn't mean I'll condone the threats to their families. 

The money that has been used to back the campaign could have, and should have, been used in any number of projects across the region that are crying out for funding. The media is bombarding us with deals and offers from pubs and restaurants around Belfast, at a time when wages for public sector workers have been frozen, the price of living is steadily increasing, and people are finding it exponentially difficult to get by day to day, without being shamed into spending what little money they have in restaurants and bars in the city. In addition to this, the workers in retail and hospitality industries have all but been left out in the cold by their employers- a lack of union presence means that all too often throughout the crisis, they were sent home from work and lost a significant amount of their earnings. Most have no union protection to ensure that they are paid irrespective of circumstance. In the bigger picture, this was seen in the south in January- music giant HMV announced it was going into administration and employees had to physically occupy the stores to ensure the company paid them the wages they were rightfully owed. 

But then we have another problem- the fact that many 'community' projects are fronted by paramilitaries who are kept quiet with the money dished out to them by the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition within the Executive. We need our elected representatives to take a stand on this- otherwise, it will keep going. On the ground, community workers see this day in and day out, and it appears to be one of the Executive's worst kept secrets. If everyone knows about it, why haven't we been lobbying the relevant Sinn Fein and DUP MLAs to stop this practise?! A similar situation was seen back in 2007, when then Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie received numerous death threats at her refusal to continue to fund UDA-backed community projects without evidence of decommissioning and reduced criminality. Behind closed doors, everyday DUP and Sinn Fein members could be pushing their MLAs to stop this practise, but they aren't- it suits both parties for the status quo to remain intact. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it explain as fully as I would like why I don't support the #BackinBelfast initiative. I find it rather insulting that my own students' union sabbatical officers are proudly enjoying their spot in the limelight as they publicly declare their support for the campaign, whilst simultaneously ignoring the fact that across the UK, there are campaigns far more worthy of their support- one only has to look at anti-fascist protests at Marine Le Pen's recent talk at Cambridge, and perhaps most importantly, recent occupations in the University of Sussex against further university privatisation to note that the de-politicisation of Queen's University Students' Union is hugely detrimental to the students and young people in Northern Ireland as a whole. 

I am not #BackinBelfast- I can't afford to. Neither can most students. Whilst students were not the main focus of this article, I'll stick to what I know best- students are struggling to get by as it is, and with £9k fees for GB students in Queen's University, halls that are more expensive than the basic loan, and a severe lack of part-time jobs (and those employed taken advantage of horrendously by their employers), students shouldn't be shamed into spending more money than they can afford. Luckily, it is often argued, we live in a world of (for the most part) interest-free overdrafts and the knowledge that it can be pushed to the back of our minds as a problem for 'future me' (the cost of living for students is something I'll get into another day- by no means take this as me declaring that we are in a comfortable position, when the reality is anything but). Most people living in Belfast don't have that luxury, most people couldn't afford to go to Deane's before the recession, never mind now. Maybe if our politicians start addressing the underlying problems- our innate sectarianism, the complete absence of any credible CSI document, inequalities in education, the strength of paramilitary control in many working class areas- I'll lend them my support in the future.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Blogs, by their very nature, are self-indulgent. I discussed this with my friend a few days ago (who I know will not read this because she makes a conscious effort not to read blogs for that very reason), and we both agreed. I mean, they are. Regardless of what you write about (with possibly a few exceptions), most blogs are rather self-indulgent. But that doesn't always mean it's a bad thing.

I'm exhausted. This week I've spent more time meeting with university and disability services staff than I have in class. Granted, I'm not in for very long every week, but that's still a lot of meetings. For someone who has spent the last three months depressed, anxious, suicidal, and keeping herself out of hospital, it has been hard to try to get back into the routine of university. It's only Week 3 and I already feel like I could keel over and sleep for a year. It's the kind of exhaustion that I can feel in my legs, the kind that stops me from making meals and having showers, and the kind that doesn't care about making meals and having showers. I am just too tired. I don't know if it's exhaustion or depression, but I also don't have the energy to care which it is.

We keep talking about self care. We keep talking about taking time out for ourselves whenever we need it, making sure that we are healthy and reasonably happy, in order to best do our jobs and best represent the students we've been elected to work for. But when we do just that, I can't help but feel there is always someone rolling their eyes behind your back. There is always someone quick to point out what you're doing wrong, and whilst I know that is part and parcel of the job (and I fully accept and think it is right that people criticise us- I mean, we need to be held to account), at times when I am not 100% it is difficult to deal with. And unfortunately, I'm rarely at 100%. I haven't been 'at 100%' for the duration of my degree, so far. And I wasn't well during my A Levels. Or my GCSEs.. so the problem is, where is the line? Where does self care begin and end? Should I even be doing what I'm doing in the first place? 

I didn't get accepted for a programme I applied for this summer (I'm on the reserve list, but people rarely drop out), and whilst I was initially disappointed, I couldn't help but notice the little thought inside my head that told me, realistically, it would be worse to have been accepted and then not to have been able to take up my place- the regulations note that you have to be 'healthy enough to travel', and considering the programme, it isn't unreasonable. And now I (though it would more likely be my parents) won't be forced into making the choice as to whether I'm 'well' enough to go away for ten weeks. 

But I'm still left with what is my life here. I study full time and essentially work part time in three different jobs. Luckily only one has contracted hours (the paid one), but even at that, the one shift I do will wear me out for the rest of the day. The good thing about the student newspaper and, to a lesser extent NUS-USI, is that I work from home and when I can, so I don't notice a 'set' amount of hours, but even things like spending an afternoon trying to catch up on emails or write reports for committees or try in vain to contact the different unions I represent can knock me out entirely. 

So what do I do? It is a question I am struggling with a lot. I have decided to spread my third year in university out into three terms- nothing is finalised but I'm hoping that will take off some of the pressure uni-wise, even though it means I won't graduate with my year and I probably will have another year of student loans to take out. I still have to be re-elected as Women's Officer for next year, and next year will be my last. Someone else will take over as News Editor for The Gown come June. But is it enough? Really, is it enough? Or will I have to accept the fact that this is a chronic condition and doesn't appear to be going away any time soon, and try to make the best out of a bad situation? I am doing what I can but I know it is not enough- it isn't up to my standards of what a News Editor or a Women's Officer or full-time student should be doing. Maybe I am spreading myself too thin, and maybe I need to remember occasionally that I came here a year and a half ago to try to do a degree, something I am reminded of every time I have to miss classes to go to conferences or London or when I can't get out of bed in the morning. 

This blog is self-indulgent. It is a way in which, as strange as this seems, my best friends, who I don't get to see very often (a mix of oceans between us/everyone has jobs and university and a million other commitments) can sometimes check in with how things are. Because I don't have the energy to contact them and make plans every week, I don't have the energy to reply to Facebook messages and talk about how things have been. I don't know why I decided to start documenting these kinds of things again, but I did, and so I need to try to stick at it. Even if it is self-indulgent. I don't have a therapist anymore and so these things, for the most part, go unsaid. I need to put it somewhere. I need to get it out of my head. 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Q is for Queer.

"Not queer like gay. Queer like, escaping definition. Queer like some sort of fluidity and limitlessness at once. Queer like a freedom too strange to be conquered. Queer like the fearlessness to imagine what love can look like... and pursue it." (Brandon Wint) 

Taken from a Facebook post by the wonderful Maryam, I don't think I've ever found something that I feel explains my sexuality better than this quote. 

So maybe this means I am "coming out", as it were, as Queer. I have struggled with identifying my sexuality for a long time. I don't feel I am straight. I don't feel I am bisexual. So I didn't know what I was, I didn't know what 'group' I fitted into, I didn't know what box I should tick when filling out equality of opportunity forms. And so I didn't really do much about it.

But since becoming increasingly active in the student movement, I've found myself questioning it more and more. Surely, there has to be some other people who find the same problem in identifying as one or the other, surely I couldn't be the only one.. and now I know that I'm not. I now know a fair few people who identify as Queer. And I've had problems trying to explain what exactly 'Queer' is to people who aren't familiar with the concept of anything but LGBT. 

So I don't really know where I go from here. I have talked about this to one or two close friends, but for the most part, haven't really talked about it at all. So maybe now, now that I've found something that I feel I fit the description of perfectly, maybe now I will feel comfortable in finally 'identifying' myself as something. 


Monday, 4 February 2013

When I was seventeen, my original plan was to go to university and then go to drama school afterwards. I had a life planned out for myself. I knew the barriers I would face, financially, in terms of trying to get through drama school, I knew the bursaries and scholarships I could apply for, I knew the cost of living in London, I had everything sorted. And then things changed.

I left school for a few months, and came back in the middle of May a different person. I had spent the previous few months in a permanent state of depression, effectively left school and decided that everything had changed. And then things changed again.

I decided I wasn't going to go back to school after only being able to sit one of my exams. I had researched my college course and I had secured my audition. I knew what I had to do and although things had changed, I had adapted.

And somehow, whilst on holiday in a small house with my family in the Tuscan hills I remembered how much I loved learning and how I wasn't ready to give it up quite yet. I remembered that nothing was better to me than a book, and that if I felt like that it made sense to go back and fit it into one year. So that's what I did.

I applied for university in September. English or English and Drama were my choices. And then things changed again.

Come May, I decided I wanted to do Politics instead. So I rang the university I'm currently at, and asked them if I could change my course. And they said yes. And then I ended up here.

I did one play at the beginning of first year. I did love it, despite the time commitments while everyone around me in halls could go out every night etc., it didn't matter because I knew I was doing what I wanted to do.

And things changed again. I was ill again and subsequently have missed more university that I can bear thinking about. And somewhere, somehow, I ended up getting involved in my students' union. And in NUSUSI and NUS. I don't quite know how I ended up here, but I did.

I've been thinking a lot about my old 'dreams', or possibly it would be more appropriate to call them 'life plans'. At one point I wanted to be a doctor, at one point a mental health nurse. I wanted to go to art college. I wanted to go to film school I wanted to do everything and even now, I can see myself, as if I was watching some sort of screen, playing out my life in each of those scenarios. I can see every one of them. And it feels strange.