Well, Shambo couldn’t be saved, but we are fast acquiring our own sacred cow in the unlikely form of a smallish patch of derelict land. This of course is the site of the now demolished Glen Road barracks. Having been put out to tender by the Department of Social Development, the plan is for an apartment complex to be built on the site. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think – West Belfast has an enormous housing list and tiny apartments are being built on every available scrap of spare ground. So how come the acres of coverage in the Andytown News, the black-and-white posters being plastered up all over Andytown decrying the “privatisation” of the barracks site, and the high-profile public meeting in the Felons Club the other night?
Actually, it gets curiouser and curiouser. When you look at who is mobilising against the “privatisation” of this little bit of land, most of them seem oddly familiar. In fact, most of them, or at least those most visible, appear to have insights into the thinking of either the Provos or the Socialist Workers Party, the latter wearing their People Before Profit hat. What is going on here?
The SWP, who are transparently obvious in everything they do, are easy to read. Their declared medium-term perspective is to get Andytown teenager Seán Mitchell elected to the council in two years’ time. They also have a ready-made template in the Rich Boy’s Save Our Seafront campaign in Kingstown, and have no doubt divined an opportunity to replicate it in the North with a Save Our Barracks campaign, which could raise the wee lad’s profile and propel him into City Hall. Lying behind that is an apparent assumption that they can muscle in on the Provos’ electoral base by, er, acting as factota to the Provos. Yeah, that’ll work. Who is writing the perspective these days? Elmer Fudd or Wile E Coyote?
The Provos are more difficult to read. They certainly have no ideological problem with privatisation or with development – after all, countryside czar Michelle Gildernew is promising to fix things so farmers can stick up bungalows wherever and whenever they feel like it. My instinct, and I have no concrete evidence of this, is that they may have had a favoured bid that wasn’t successful. This is based on the precedent of what happened when the Sticks sold the Suffolk Inn – the community was mobilised on a “Down with this sort of thing” basis, the winning bidder withdrew and the Sticks ended up selling the site at a knock-down price. That might not be the case here, but it’s a plausible scenario.
There are further, political benefits to a Save Our Barracks campaign. Encouraging small local campaigns against Executive decisions warms the cockles of Shinners who reckon that they should still be involved in some sort of radicalism. And it further enables pot shots at the Social Development minister, the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie, who is the only minister they are rude about these days. The great thing about this campaign, too, is that the Provos can supply some modest resources but don’t have to do anything themselves, not when some gormless lefty dopes are willing to do the campaigning for them.
How is this going to pan out? Well, the land is lying there doing nothing, and something is going to be built on it. There haven’t been, as far as I can see, firm proposals from the objectors as to an alternative development. The SWP’s usual reflex is to call for a kids’ playground or something similar, but let’s get real here. The traffic in the area – right on the junction of the Glen Road and Falls Road – rules out putting up any swings or a football field. A community centre is a non-starter, just because the area’s coming down with them already. And if there was a proposal for social housing, local residents would be the first to object, what with that area being all private housing.
There have been some ideas floating around not a million miles from the Provos. The ex-prisoners are still quite keen to get an interpretive centre, or something showcasing the area’s radical past, for the benefit of tourists. And then there’s the long-running proposal to stick up a hotel in the area, to accommodate the visitors to Féile. What’s most likely is that the site will eventually become a bar or restaurant, if it doesn’t become a hotel.
This will not please those campaigners who are adamant that a community project of some description should go up there. But, if we are to have a development that benefits the community, why not rebuild the barracks? The den of criminality that is West Belfast could use it. Or, to encapsulate the spirit of the new Norn Iron, why not a lap-dancing club? Or, for something really useful, the Church could buy the land and use it to provide car parking for visitors to the graveyard. Now that’s a plan I could get behind.