Scléip na seachtaine


And now it’s time to return to local news, with a few little vignettes from recent days illustrating life in Our Wee Pravince.

First up, I suppose, is the small riot at a meeting of Limavady council the other night, when PSF councillors were chivvied by a 70-strong loyalist mob who had turned up for the meeting. This sort of thing used to happen regularly at Belfast City Hall, but it hadn’t been heard of at council meetings in the recent past. What was going on here?

Well, apparently nationalist councillors had been questioning whether having things like pictures of the Royal Family adorning council property was quite in the spirit of equality that our New Dispensation is supposed to enshrine. I actually though the Fair Employment Act had dealt with those issues twenty-odd years ago, but maybe there’s a time lag out in the sticks. Similarly, demographic changes in the Leap of the Dog mean that the local council now has a nationalist majority, something Limavady Prods have a hard time accepting. At least the unionist councillors holding forth on the mob’s feeling that their identity was being taken away ran true to form.

Then we have Wallace Thompson. “Who he?” you may ask, and I confess I had never heard of the bloke either. But he popped up on the wireless representing something called the Evangelical Protestant Society, giving off about the Church of Ireland. Apparently the gift shop at the CoI cathedral in Armagh had been selling rosary beads, and to Mr Thompson this was an unacceptable concession to ecumenism and idolatrous popery. Mr Thompson went on to describe Pope Benny as the Antichrist, and promised to fight tooth and nail to prevent the mooted papal visit to the North.

To those of us who regularly listen to local radio, this is all pretty standard boilerplate. I mean to say, tune in to Talk Back for a week and you’ll quickly become inured to sectarian wingnuts. What caused a fuss, and catapulted the story onto the front page of the Telegraph, was the revelation that Mr Thompson is a special advisor to enterprise minister Nigel Dodds (DUP). And in fact his comments would have been more or less typical of DUP discourse a few years back. But just slightly embarrassing for a party attempting to shed its sectarian cornerboy image.

Meanwhile, the peelers were getting politically correct. Norn Iron’s cops have been instructed not to use derogatory terms like “fenian” or “hun”, as they may be perceived to be sectarian. So speaks the PSNI’s Directorate of the Bleeding Obvious.

And then we have the much-delayed appointment of the Victims’ Commissioner. Regular readers will recall that some time ago I suggested that, as nobody can agree who actually is a victim of the Troubles, our joint presidency of Big Ian and Marty should appoint two joint commissioners. Actually, it seems they will now be appointing not one, not two, but four commissioners with equal standing. Seeing how this is exactly the sort of harebrained scheme that UN diplomats in Phnom Penh or Sarajevo might cook up, I suppose it at least shows the Chuckle Brothers have assimilated modern theories of peacemaking.

Finally, there is Donald Trump. You’ll recall that, at the time of the Chuckle Brothers’ recent visit to the States, the Donald had suffered a brush-off from Aberdeenshire councillors who didn’t want his monstrous golf resort on their doorsteps. Never one to miss an opportunity, Papa Doc lobbied the Donald to build the resort in North Antrim instead. And so it has come to pass that the Donald’s representative, one George Sorial, has been in Norn Iron scouting out locations.

In fact, Mr Sorial was even received at Stormont by our devolved rulers. I was also intrigued by his comments to the effect that Trumpland might be built in partnership with a local developer. As luck would have it, I can think of a developer in North Antrim who might be interested in a piece of the action…

Baby Doc and the North Antrim pork barrel


And we can’t forget the big local story of the week, namely Ian Óg Paisley’s, shall we say, idiosyncratic approach to peace negotiations. This has come to the fore thanks to Prodiban leader Jim Allister who, despite having the charisma of an oven glove, is doing his damnedest to turn a by-election to Banbridge council into a battle for the soul of unionism.

Wee Ian, so it transpires, went along to the St Andrew’s negotiations with a list of six demands in his back pocket, and got reassurances on them from the then direct rule administration. None of these demands had anything to do with the political process, by the way. What they had to do with was improving the lot of North Antrim. In particular, improving the lot of one person in North Antrim, namely property developer and DUP member Seymour Sweeney, who has already managed to land Baby Doc in the soup. Indeed, we hear that the Giant’s Causeway project featured heavily in the little list.

In related news, Environment Minister Arlene “Stonewall” Foster (DUP) has given a brilliant demonstration of why, in my opinion, the Stormont Executive should be renamed the Procrastination Committee. The Assembly environment committee, or to be more precise the SDLP, PSF and OUP members making up a majority of said committee, has voted to compel Mrs Foster to release papers relating to the Causeway visitors’ centre. This is unlikely to happen, firstly because under Article 44 the compulsion would have to come from Assembly Speaker Willie Hay (DUP), and secondly because Arlene says she hasn’t made a decision. She has only stated that she is “minded” to give Mr Sweeney the contract.

Here’s a modest suggestion. Next time the DUP are in negotiations, wouldn’t it be an idea to retain the services of Tony Gregory?

Bono to blight Dublin skyline with giant phallic symbol


Just look at this. This monstrosity is going to be looming over the Dublin docklands in just a couple of years’ time, despite being totally out of keeping with the character of the area, commemorating four men’s egos in a way that should cause the late PB Shelley to rise from his grave and rewrite “Ozymandias”.

I refer of course to famed musicians, global messiahs and tax dodgers U2, who are now going into property development in a big way. The group are of course already drawing fire for their planned redevelopment of the Clarence Hotel, owned by Sir Bono and the Edge since 1996. However, the hotel has not been a money-spinner, and so, notwithstanding its being a listed building, Sir Bono has enlisted Lord Norman Foster to swank it up into a futuristic rock palace. In the way of these things, the futuristic rock palace will almost certainly be hilariously out of date long before it’s completed, but piffling considerations like that won’t stop the destruction of the area’s Georgian architecture.

But this is to be dwarfed by the modestly named U2 Tower, the mooted skyscraper down by the docks designed by Lord Norman Foster, which Sir Bono intends to be the tallest building in Ireland. Most of the building will be dedicated to apartments, and even with a projected price tag of a €1-1.5m for a two-bed apartment, there are probably enough mugs in Dublin to fill them. At the top, meanwhile, will be a bubble housing U2’s recording studio, so Sir Bono and the boys can survey their kingdom while working on their sounds.

The more I look at the sketches for the U2 Tower, the more I am convinced that this modern-day Tower of Babel is something the Dublin cityscape would be better off without. There is something about it that reminds me of the possessed skyscraper in Ghostbusters, or perhaps Sauron’s tower in Lord of the Rings. And this is supposed to be spearheading the redevelopment of the docklands? Why not just build a giant replica of Bono’s penis? It could hardly be less of an eyesore.

Creationism at the Causeway


I should, I suppose, write today about our outstanding natural wonder, the Giant’s Causeway. This isn’t prompted, or at least only indirectly, by the ongoing row about the planned visitors’ centre, although I notice I haven’t covered this and it’s worth briefly recapping.

In a nutshell, environment minister Arlene Foster (DUP) announced that she was “minded” to award the £20m contract for a new visitors’ centre to developer Seymour Sweeney. Arlene said she had no knowledge of Mr Sweeney, but it subsequently emerged that he was a member of the DUP and well acquainted with both Papa Doc and Baby Doc. This could well be entirely innocent, but it doesn’t look very good. It has also gone down badly with local DUP councillors, who have been agitating for a publicly funded visitors’ centre.

Anyway, what piqued my interest was an item on yesterday’s Talk Back. This was connected not to the contract for the visitors’ centre, but to its potential content. Dunseith had on some punter purporting to represent the Causeway Creation Committee. It emerged that the punter was demanding that the visitors’ centre, in addition to the geological explanation for the Causeway (the basalt columns resulting from an ancient volcanic eruption) and the Fionn mac Cumhaill mythological explanation, should also give prominence to the creationist explanation. I wasn’t entirely clear what the creationist explanation for the Causeway was.

This could be tied in to the recent action of Lisburn ‘City’ Council in supporting a DUP motion calling for Intelligent Design to be taught in local schools. Perhaps fortunately, the council has no powers over the curriculum. Meanwhile, we may ponder the theory posited by Oscar Kiss Maerth in the 1970s, that the human species had devolved from a race of brain-eating apes. Is it possible that some devolved further and found their way onto Lisburn council?

Rud eile: While on the subject of property developers, I am informed that the Andytown barracks site was reclaimed by the community at the weekend. This amounted to sixty dispirited children, thirty dispirited adults and a bouncy castle.

Update 17.10.07: I notice this letter in the Belfast Telegraph from the Causeway Creation Committee, arguing that the famous basalt columns are in fact a direct result of Noah’s Flood, and demanding that the visitors’ centre includes the biblical perspective.

Victory for Save Our Barracks!


I have on one or two past occasions been a bit flippant about the Save Our Barracks campaign in Andytown. It seems I have underestimated the campaign, as the Carvill Group, which had won the tender to build an apartment block on the derelict site where the old Glen Road barracks used to stand, has now pulled out. This is due to the mobilisation of the local community on a “Down with this sort of thing” basis, which had led to a question mark over the planning process.

I’m sure those involved will be very happy with this. In fact, there’s a fair possibility of the SWP – sorry, People Before Profit – trying to organise a victory parade, although the Provos, who have been making the running on this issue, might look askance at that.

The question now is, what will be done with the site? As I see it, there are three possibilities:

1. Another private developer will buy the site, and stick up some development – possibly a hotel or a restaurant – with a community component, such as an ex-prisoners’ interpretive centre. This must rank as the most likely option. Besides, Carvill’s experience will have been off-putting to developers outside the republican Big Tent, so now would be a good opportunity for any mate of Gerry’s in the construction industry to get the site at a knock-down price.

2. The ground could lie derelict indefinitely. Since every square inch of ground in West Belfast is being built on, this doesn’t seem very likely.

3. The Stormont Executive could agree to a public-sector development on the site. With the DUP holding the purse-strings, this is even less likely. The most the community could hope for is probably a corrugated iron hut for kids to play pool in. Bear in mind also that the area is already coming down with community centres and the like. That is, unless somebody in the campaign goes beyond intoning “community project” and puts forward a solid and eye-catching proposal.

I will watch future developments with interest.

Save Our Barracks!


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.

Jack Barnes’ property ladder


A thousand thanks to the reader who emailed me this New York Observer story about Jack Barnes, Maximum Leader of the US Socialist Workers Party.

Communists Capitalize on Village — Get $1.87 M. for Loft
by Max Abelson

If bow-tied, cigar-mouthed Republicans can have nice seven-digit, six-room co-ops, don’t a few old Manhattan communists deserve multi-million-dollar real estate, too?

A two-bedroom loft at 380 West 12th Street, a 109-year-old building on a cobblestone block by the Hudson River, was sold by American socialist leaders Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters. Their buyers, Sony BMG Music Entertainment vice president Ole Obermann and his fiancée, Stephanie Jakubiak, paid $1,872,500.

“I don’t want to hurt the sellers’ feelings at all, but they definitely had a funky style in terms of how they did the apartment,” said Mr. Obermann. That means there are sliding stained-glass doors, plus a wall of bookshelves. (Ms. Waters is the president of publishing house Pathfinder Press, which publishes Marx and Trotsky, and Mr. Barnes, too.)

“Personally, our tastes are different and we’ll probably do something different,” the buyer said. “It will be open, airy, simple, whereas when it was done 15 years ago there was a lot of light-colored wood shelving.” He’s adding six or so wireless speakers, “a nice music system.”

Edward Ferris of Brown Harris Stevens was the listing broker.

It isn’t clear when Mr. Barnes and Ms. Waters bought the place or how much they paid, but city records date back to 1993, when apartments were massively cheaper.

Unlike most people in six-room lofts, Mr. Barnes once met with Kim Il-sung, the late North Korean president. The leader “conversed with the guests in a cordial and friendly atmosphere and arranged a lunch for them,” a report published by the BBC in 1990 said. “US Socialist Workers’ Party, led by its National Secretary Jack Barnes… presented him with a gift.”

So what is the couple like? “We only met Mary-Alice, and she was incredibly friendly, interesting, had a nice warm way about her, seemed like a very nice woman,” Mr. Obermann said. “She mentioned she really liked to cook, they would have friends over—it’s like a social space.”

Nice one Jack! I should point out that I’m not a hairshirt socialist. If Jack Barnes wants to own a Manhattan apartment, or even make a profit selling one, that’s fine by me.

That’s not to say that there is no issue here. The late Jim Cannon, whom Jack professes to follow, used to be very hot on the idea of communist leaders setting an example for the rank and file. So there is, and let’s be kind here, an itty bitty tension between leading a group that fetishises “footloose revolutionaries” and discourages comrades from owning property, and dabbling in the property market yourself.

Then again, maybe Jack is onto something. After all, this is the guy who was perspicacious enough to dump Trotskyism for Stalinism just as the latter entered its period of terminal decline. Perhaps Jack’s latest wheeze is the Sarah Beeny road to socialism.

 More on this from Louis.