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.


  1. "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"

    It's a fair point, but it's harsh to blame the employers where there are zero-hour contracts and the like if they run reduced staff levels to cope with demand. I don't know if many restaurants could manage a full service staff shift when barely a table is filled.

    In addition, I'd like to see the overall effect of the Back In Belfast campaign in terms of economic impact. I agree that it's £1m of public funds that probably should not have been spent, but if it's helped businesses return to profit, I don't think it's an awful thing. Considering the weakness of the private sector and considering the problems you've stated above, the benefits of 1) a return to profitability and 2) more demand meaning more shift work will proably outweigh the negatives.

    1. For the avoidance of doubt, I'm referring to that occuring over multiple days - not just one.

  2. It's also worth noting that a lot of smaller independent business-people can't afford to meet BackinBelfast's discount pre-requisites for free advertising. Those that benefit are the larger businesses which would have survived regardless. This is among the many consequences (you've stated well), when council co-opts a successful grass-roots campaign like Operation Sit-In. As for ex-provos shunted up to community management jobs, it breaks my student's heart too.

  3. I have so much admiration for you. Your ability to articulate the things that matter to you is astounding, and given the struggles you can endure, leave me even more in awe. Never stop using your voice <3