18 February 2012

Things to do in Dublin when in Debt

#unlockOmNomNom, because nothing says autonomous resistance like baked vegan treats
#unlockNAMA, 66-67 Great Strand Street, 28th January
Once again laid low by chronic pancreasness, I will not be attending today's solidarity rally outside the Greek Embassy, nor will I be marching with the single parents of SPARK! in their campaign against the Government's austerity measures (despite being the proud son of a single mother myself), or even today's meet-up of anti-authoritarian groups in Seomara Spraoi (Dublin's answer to the Italian Centro Sociales). Instead I will be spending the day, like most of the last three days, in bed, contemplating the nature of existence and why bad things happen to reasonably inoffensive people. This week, and thanks to my faulty pancreas, I have a particularly annoying migrating pain, hopping up and down through my innards like a checker on its way to be kinged. Most of the time it rests just below the base of my sternum, but occasionally it dives south an inch or two to just above my navel, and as these two locations are equidistant from the seven-inch scar left behind from the last bit of surgical pruning my pancreas received, the whole experience is like watching a very slow game of Pong take place within my tum-tum.

In fact I am reminded of a story from the first day or two of #OccupyLondon, when the police arrived in force to prevent more people from camping on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, forming a line of Bobbies separating those on the steps from the growing crowd attempting to join them. While the police were expecting the restive crowd to turn hostile at the kettling exercise, instead folks pulled out a few racquets and started to play a giant game of badminton with the police line as the net. Sadly no record exists of which side won.

Thus with my body yet again betraying me at a most inopportune time, and while I await the fugue of pain medication to envelop me in its velvet tentacles, rendering me incapable of anything more intellectually stimulating than watching a Come Dine With Me marathon (ironic, given that I am also incapable of eating at the moment), I thought I would misquote G. Bernard Shaw in an appalling fashion, for since today I am unable to "do", I might as well write. While today's adventures in horizontal autonomous political activism will go on without me, I shall instead regale you with a tale of the last such action I participated in, way back in the heady mists of time we like to call "three weeks ago today".

Our current political and economic morasse has provoked a number of reactions, mostly on a very small scale, from the weekly Ballyhea Bondholder marches in rural Cork through to the ongoing #Occupy protests in most major Irish cities. While not huge in numbers, the spirit of the autonomous self-organised action groups existing outside of traditional political structures has nonetheless succeeded in capturing the public imagination in a positively disproportionate manner. The latest of these activist collectives that I have been following is the #unlockNAMA group in Dublin.

In case you have been living on the moon for the last year or two (the moon behind shorthand for anywhere outside of Ireland), NAMA is the National Assets Management Agency, a special purpose vehicle established by the last Fianna Fail/Green Government to take all the distressed commercial properties off the hands of the banks and the developers so they didn't have to worry about them anymore, and place them on the shoulders of the citizenry who apparently didn't have enough to be dealing with at the time. Where developers were unable to pay back the banks on outstanding property-related loans, instead of sending them to jail like they do ordinary citizens in financial difficulties, the Government used the public purse to buy the affected loan book and properties at a reduced rate, wiping away the developers' debt and then hiring those developers at six-figure salaries to manage their distressed properties supposedly on behalf of the Irish citizenry, with a view to selling them on at some mythical point in the future when they become something other than worthless. Although NAMA was created by the Government and funded entirely with money from the public purse it insists that it is a private institution and thus not subject to pesky little things like the Freedom of Information act. This makes it impossible for the citizenry to know things like who exactly is being paid by NAMA, what properties it is managing, or how exactly it is planning to get any money back for the people of this country that are unfairly shouldering the massive burden.

This lack of transparency and accountability have caused a small group of activists in Dublin to rise up, and on the 28th of January the #unlockNAMA group launched their first public action with the seizing of a building managed by NAMA at 66-67 Great Strand Street in the city centre, with the intent of holding it for a single day and transforming it into a pop-up cultural centre, before retuning it to the State in a better condition than they found it in. Identifying a NAMA building wasn't an easy task, for there is no complete and public registry of properties transferred to NAMA, even though the public now own them. Originally owned by the Quakers in the 19th Century and run for a while as an educational institute, in the 20th Century the site became the headquarters of St John's Ambulance before being sold on to a series of commercial owners in the 1960's. In 2006 Anglo Irish Bank provided a mortgage for the building to developer Hugh O'Regan, who owned the nearby Morrsion Hotel, and during his ownership it was essentially a vacant building, acting as a sometime storehouse for the hotel while it rapidly fell into a state of neglect. By 2010 O'Regan's property empire had collapsed, and NAMA took possession of most of it, including the building at 66-67 Great Strand Street, appointing the solicitors firm Martin Ferris to act as the agent for the property, and it was this bit of legal smoke and mirrors that allowed NAMA to deny that it was the owner of the building, as they do when questioned about most properties on their books. While the Morrison has since been sold to Russia's richest woman for a reported €20 million, there is no word on whether the property on Great Strand Street was included in the transaction.

Posing as potential buyers for the property members of the #unlockNAMA group were able to scout out the building a number of days in advance to identify what could be done with it during the planned day's event and how much work would be needed to done to make it safe for members of the public to enter - it really was in a terrible state of disrepair. Gaining access through means as yet undetermined they entered the building a day or so before the event and set about tidying it up, and then at 9:30am on Saturday morning they announced to the world their location and that they were open for business, and thus I moseyed on down with my camera to have a look-see.

Conor McCabe explores the hows and whys of NAMA
#unlockNAMA, 66-67 Great Strand Street, 28th January
Now I wasn't involved in any shape or form with any of the planning or execution of the building repurposing, but when I arrived I was delighted to see that I knew a good few of the people who had been, and I think that a large part of the day's success was due to who its organisers were. A small group, the planning for the event seemed to have been both extensive and meticulous, with everyone involved knowing exactly what their role on the day was, and where they should be. The media team had been alerting the public and the Fourth Estate for a few days in advance to prepare for the location to be announced, and by the time I got there a number of journalists were already interviewing both the organisers and folks who had just wandered along. A single floor had been reclaimed for public use, repurposed as a large lecture hall with a media anteroom and working toilets. A full day of talks were planned, with author and academic Conor McCabe speaking on the history and role of NAMA at lunctime, and economist Michael Taft and academic Andy Storey due to speak later in the afternoon.

The morning went very well, radio and online reports of the event brought in curious and supportive members of the public, and the room was packed by the time McCabe invoked the Book of Habakuk to explain NAMA (always a crowd pleaser, when your crowd contains Consulting Theologians like myself), and posed the question, "If residential property caused this crash then why aren't residential properties in NAMA?", and as we broke up shortly afterwards for lunch a feeling of overwhelming optimism and positivity filled the building, a feeling that, as we would soon learn, neither Martin Ferris nor An Garda Síochána were too happy about.

Once word of the takeover hit the airwaves, Martin Ferris, the firm appointed by NAMA to manage the property, sent down a security guard to see what was going on. He entered the building, switched on and off the fire alarm to make sure it was still working, and then he headed off to report back in to Martin Ferris, who subsequently called the gardaí. Interestingly enough it was not uniformed officers that arrived, but a number of plain clothes special branch officers, who wandered in to have a look around, ask folks what was going on and then, presumably after checking back in with their superiors, returned to order everyone to leave, and it was at this point that the #unlockNAMA group called their own solicitors.

As uniformed members of the gardaí arrived to seal off the building, preventing anyone entering or exiting, negotiations began with the group inside, made a bit more complicated by the fact that the gardaí kept asking to speak to the group's leader, not fully grasping the concept of an autonomous leaderless resistance movement. However certain members of the #unlockNAMA group had been tasked with liaising with the gardaí, and so began shuttling back and forth between the 50 or so people inside the building and the gardaí outside. According to the gardaí, Martin Ferris claimed ownership of the building, denying that it was held by NAMA, and accused the group of both trespass and intimidation of the security guard that dropped by earlier (apparently the fact that there were 50+ people, even when acting entirely peacefully and non-confrontationally, classifies as intimidation). The group inside the building collectively discussed a response, and consensus was reached on agreeing to leave the building, but the gardaí were asked to give the group an hour to allow them to remove all their equipment and return the site to as pristine a condition as possible (and a far better condition than it was found in).

As the #unlockNAMA solicitor negotiated with both the gardaí and the solicitor from Martin Ferris, a curious thing happened, while initially the gardaí had just asked everyone to leave, they now demanded that everyone inside give their names, addresses and dates of birth as a condition of being released without charge, failure to do so would result in arrest for trespass and intimidation. When asked why this was necessary, the gardaí replied that it was for "insurance purposes", that they needed a record of all who were inside to prevent future bogus injury claims from people who were not present. On the advice of the #unlockNAMA solicitor, who said that he had agreed with Martin Ferris that no charges would be made then or at any future date against anyone who complied, those remaining inside collectively agreed to these terms and started to pack up the lecture room and all the other equipment, then proceeded to file past a number of gardaí who jotted down everyone's details before they were allowed to leave the building. While I was unhappy with my own details being taken, I thought that protestations of "but its my day off, I wasn't even supposed to be here" would have rung hollow after spending the previous four hours tweeting updates and photos from the scene.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining how it came to pass that as I emerged from the building carrying a stack of chairs I walked straight into a media throng with reporters and tv crews, and how my face subsequently ended up being splashed up all over the Six-One news that evening.

My first perp walk. My mammy must have been so proud.

The media pounce on exiting activists
#unlockNAMA, 66-67 Great Strand Street, 28th January
Given that the intention was never to hold a prolonged action, repurposing the building for but a single day to raise public awareness, I think it is safe to call the event a success despite the abrupt ending facilitated by the gardaí. But what is to be learned from the day as a whole?

Well, we now know where the line is as far as the Government and An Garda Síochána are concerned. The Central Bank have been happy enough (and by "happy" I mean "not very happy at all but the alternatives would be a PR disaster") to let #OccupyDameStreet remain camped at their gates for the last four months, with similar reactions from Cork and Galway City Councils to the Occupations there. NAMA is a different matter altogether, for while there may be elements of the public and media who dismiss the Occupy groups as a bunch of scrounging hippies, there surely can be no-one in the country that has a good word to say about NAMA (except for the developers and the 68% of Green Party members who voted in favour of it at their special conference back in October 2009, the only citizens who were given a chance to reject it, and who sadly put their own short-sighted interests ahead of the country as a whole, driving another nail into our collective national coffin), thus it would appear that those in authority fear that NAMA may become a flash-point for public discontent, and moved very quickly to stamp it out.

This level of public support was very much in evidence, both on the ground at the time and in subsequent reports of the day's action. I spoke with one of the organisers who had been interviewed later on a TV3 chatshow, and at the end of the interview the host finished up by saying, "well good luck with the next one", ignoring or uninterested in the fact that a building takeover was potentially a criminal act, not a mildly diverting weekend hobby. Nobody save the banks, developers, the Government (and the Greens) wanted NAMA, and the presence of so many deserted and crumbling buildings is a daily reminder of the humiliation that we as citizens have been made to face to cover the private gambling debts of our nation's elites.

Shortly after this event, the City Council announced details of a scheme to encourage landlords with vacant buildings to let them out on a temporary basis to artists and cultural groups. This will be a voluntary scheme, and all the Council are doing is putting prospective tenants in touch with landlords, no reduction in rates are being offered and rents are a matter for negotiation between tenants and landlords. While any initiative to boost the city's cultural sphere is welcome, when so much of the nation's vacant property is in fact owned by the State and is set to remain unoccupied for many years while NAMA waits for the property market to pick up before reselling, it seems ludicrous that the government itself doesn't throw open the doors of these buildings to the citizenry that has paid for them, offering them rent free as cultural, artistic and community centres.

#unlockNAMA has three main demands, to make NAMA properties available for social and community use, that NAMA publish full addresses and details on all properties under them, and that NAMA publish full details on all sales of NAMA assets. The takeover and repurposing of 66-67 Great Strand Street was just the first in a series of actions designed to highlight these demands, and I will be watching with great interest to see how their campaign unfolds.

(hopefully it will involve less footage of me on the TV)

For #unlockNAMA's account of the day, check out their post on Irish Left Review. For more information on the mysterious and macabre twilight world of NAMA, check out the anonymous blog Nama Wine Lake. It predates and is unaffiliated with the #unlockNAMA folks, and it is currently the best resource for understanding how NAMA works and how the Government is using it to pull a fast one on the Irish people.

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At 12:25 am, Anonymous steve said...

great post. sorry to hear you're unwell again. get well man.

At 6:50 pm, Blogger lusciousblopster said...

good reflection on an important and worthwhile and peaceful day's events. and don't feel too bad at missing a protest or two because of being in bed - you were just practising the horizontal part of autonomous political activism.


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