Irish squatters occupying 'ghost estates' as political protest

marksimonbrown mark at
Wed Jan 4 08:47:14 GMT 2012

The Irish squatters taking on empty homes and a bankrupt system

A nascent movement in Ireland is occupying 'ghost estates' as a political protest – and in 2012 it will be testing the authorities

by Henry McDonald , The Guardian
Tuesday 3rd Jan, 2012

As Ireland reels from yet another austere budget and a year of economic pain, a group of young activists have begun to take over empty properties spawned by the boomand abandoned by banks and property developers across the country.

The squatters, linked to Ireland's Occupy movement, say they plan a mass occupation of houses and flats owned by the Irish government's "bad bank", National Asset Management Agency (Nama), which took over thousands of properties that speculators handed back after the crash.

Led by a 27-year-old Irish-language speaker and graduate from Galway, the group has already squatted a house on Dublin's northside that was worth €550,000 in the boom but is now put at under €200,000. Since the property has been empty for several years, Liam Mac an Bháird and his friends occupied it in the autumn to highlight homelessness, as well as the way builders and banks were bailed out by the taxpayer.

There are up to 400,000 properties lying empty in the Republic, with the country's National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) warning that the number of vacant properties could keep house prices low for years.

Mac an Bháird concedes that his group are breaking the law but argues that they are making an important political point. "There are thousands homeless in this country with about 2,000 on the streets of Dublin alone tonight. Yet across the city there are thousands of flats, apartments, homes lying empty – some could be fit for human habitation.

"Our occupation is a way of making a point about the system we are living under. These properties could lie vacant for up to 10 years or more – so why not put homeless people into them?"

He reveals that the nascent movement has targeted a range of properties including an empty electronics factory in north Dublin's Smithfield district.

"I have been arguing in the Occupy movement that we need to take over Nama-owned properties in Dublin to highlight the injustice of a system where billions were pumped into banks that lent property speculators so much money," he said.

"Ultimately we should be talking about moving a large number of people into one of our 'ghost estates', which otherwise will lie and rot."

The 600 or so "ghost estates" built in the Celtic Tiger years have come to symbolise the Irish recession. The cost of bailing out the banks that loaned billions to builders and property speculators during the boom has been huge. Economists put the Irish bank losses at about €106bn.

Anger is mounting towards the institutions the majority of Irish people blame for the economic collapse: the bailed-out banks and property speculators. That anger is compounded with nationwide misery as Ireland remains mired in recession. The most recent figures from the Republic's Central Office of Statistics prior to Christmas found that Irish GDP had contracted by 1.9% in the third quarter of 2011.

In the Occupy camp at the Central Bank of Ireland, a focal point for opposition to the banks and the bailout, Mac an Bháird stressed that their movement would impose rules on Ireland's squatters.

"There are no drugs or drink tolerated in these places during our occupations because we are making a political stand. It is also wholly non-violent, like the Occupy movement. And we do not take anything that doesn't belong to us in the properties we squat in."

He explained that they survive by "skip diving" – reclaiming the uneaten, unused food discarded every day by major supermarket chains.

With the Irish government imposing a further €2.2bn of cuts in the December budget, targeting Ireland's debt, Mac an Bháird says their campaign is going to gain support from normally conservative quarters.

"Even at the Occupy camp at the Central Bank, there are middle-class people coming up and telling us they agree with our stance. It is the middle classes who are now paying for the greed of the bankers and the builders, and this corrupt system. They can see the logic behind taking over buildings that otherwise would be left to rot for years."

The campaigners aim to soon target a major Nama-owned building in Dublin and test the attitude of the authorities.

"It will be interesting to see if they are prepared to put homeless people out of the building, given that it is owned by the state and hence the people, and given that will be likely to lie empty for years," he adds.

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