What Happened to Northern Ireland’s Shared Future?

In 2005, Northern Ireland’s joint Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont published ‘A Shared Future’. The policy, an unashamedly irenic blueprint for a post-conflict society, included plans for addressing contentious issues such as flags and emblems and parading. Every government department would have to create action plans to ensure A Shared Future was fully implemented.

Eight years later, A Shared Future has been largely forgotten. In 2007, when Sinn Fein and the DUP finally agreed to share power, the policy was quietly shunted aside. Both parties offered a bowdlerised version, entitled Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI), for consultation. A draft of the CSI has still to be agreed upon — almost a decade and a half on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has no official anti-sectarian strategy.

A shiny policy document would, of course, offer little practical protection against youths wielding bricks and petrol bombs – a dispiritingly familiar sight in East Belfast this week – but A Shared Future’s failure is a cautionary tale of the political reality of contemporary Northern Ireland.

In 1998, in the first elections after the Agreement, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists emerged as the largest parties. Last year, the DUP affirmed their political supremacy by again topping the Assembly polls. Sinn Fein finished a very clear second. The non-sectarian Alliance attracted fewer than 8 per cent of voters in 2011, up just over 1 per cent on 1998.

As their more moderate rivals wither on the vine, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have any real motivation for reaching out across the sectarian divide. Community relations have ossified to the point where a majority of Protestants cannot envisage a time when there are no peace walls and disenfranchised loyalists burn tricolours outside Belfast City Hall to express their angry, inchoate confusion.

Faced with a crisis they did much to create, Northern Unionists have plumped for unity over sharing. On Thursday, the new Unionist Forum set up by Democratic Unionist Party leader, and Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson and his Ulster Unionist Party counterpart Mike Nesbitt met for the first time. Among the representatives in the room at Stormont, were members of the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wings of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force respectively.

Senior UVF figures have been heavily involved in the violence in East Belfast, as Police Service of Northern Ireland chief Matt Baggott confirmed earlier this week. The UVF’s leader in the East of the city – dubbed ‘the Beast from the East’ – has orchestrated the unrest, as he did during the riots in East Belfast in 2011. Chief among their aims is that the Historical Enquires Team, which was set up to examine unsolved murders committed during the Troubles, cease its investigation of a number of high profile loyalists.

While the recent violence has won a place for loyalist paramilitaries at the table with the Northern Ireland first minister on Thursday, the Ulster People’s Forum (UPF), the new grouping that has emerged at the vanguard of the unrest, were conspicuous by their absence. Willie Frazer is a familiar face on the fringes of loyalism, but many of the UPF’s other leaders are relative novices politicised by the protests that started outside Belfast City Hall on December. Jamie Bryson, a young evangelical Christian who has been at the forefront of the new group, has said that they might join the Unionism Forum at some stage. There is a far-right presence among the protesters, too: former British National Party organiser Jim Dowson has been prominent in the regular demonstrations outside Belfast City Hall.

The bulk of the protestors are young men from working class neighbourhoods of Belfast where levels of educational attainment are as dismal as turnout at elections. They are among those worst hit by Northern Ireland’s continuing downturn. Unemployment has risen 170 per cent in the last five years. The number of youth claimants is 26 per cent higher than when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. One in four young people are out of work.

That the solution to the current unrest must be political is about the only thing the North’s political classes all agree on. Not all unionists, however, believe that unity is the answer. Liberal UUP MLA John McCallister has spent the last year trying to force through legislation that would see the Ulster Unionists form a formal Opposition at Stormont. The power-sharing set-up by the Good Friday Agreement has, he argues, created monolithic nationalist and unionist blocs that speak only to their bases and are not properly accountable. He has a point.

Almost fifteen years on from the signing of the Agreement, Stormont is arguably more divided than ever. That the political situation is replicated on the streets should be no surprise. A shared future can be built in Northern Ireland, but first the foundations have to be laid. A dedicated anti-sectarian strategy and a genuine Opposition would be a start.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post on 13 January 2013.

Belfast Businesses Count Cost of Unrest

The weeks leading up to Christmas are normally a bumper time for the Mourne Seafood Bar in Belfast. One of the most popular restaurants in the city, empty tables at the Mourne are usually a collector’s item at weekends during the festive period. But not last Saturday. As protestors with Union Jack scarves across their faces stalked the streets of Belfast, many guests called to cancel their bookings.

‘We probably lost between £7000 and £8000 in our two Belfast restaurants,’ Bob McCoubrey joint owner of the Mourne Seafood Bar and its sister restaurant in Belfast, Home, as well as another premises in Dundrum, County Down, told the Sunday Business Post. McCoubrey estimated there were 50 to 60 cancellations on Saturday alone.

flagsdisorder_18122012‘The cancellations were mainly people worried about public transport, about getting home after dinner,’ he said. ‘The general public are not afraid but it is the hassle factor – they fear about how they will get home and are worried about being stuck in town.’

The Mourne Seafood Bar is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses in Belfast, and across Northern Ireland, effected by the on-goings loyalist protests. Belfast City Council’s recent ruling that the Union Jack will fly continuously from City Hall on fifteen designated days, rather than all year round sparked the demonstrations. The decision was the result of a compromise agreement between the Alliance Party, who hold the balance of power on the council, and Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

The loyalist protests are estimated to have cost Belfast businesses £3 million in lost revenue on Saturday. The true figure for losses could rise much higher, said Glyn Roberts, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIRTA). ‘This is the most important trading time of the year. Our members are hoping for a good end to what has been a difficult year for many and now they are finding that they have lost trade and are being forced to close,’ he said.

Last Saturday should have been one of the busiest trading days in the year for HMV in Donegall Arcade, in the centre of Belfast. Instead footfall was down 40 per cent, said manager James Rider. In all, the number of customers passing through the store has declined a quarter since the protests began.

‘This is roughly in line with that is happening across the city centre. I know of seven or eight other shops that would have seen similar falls in footfall in the last week,’ Rider said.

As protests have spread beyond Belfast to other towns and centres across Northern Ireland, many business people are concerned about how long the disruption will continue. ‘If it lasts through December it’s frightening to think what could happen to businesses,’ said Rider.

‘There is a fear that this could drag on until Christmas,’ said NIRTA’s Glyn Roberts said. ‘The blunt reality is that for some businesses unless they have a good Christmas they not be here in the New Year.’

Speaking in the wake of the fire bombing of a police patrol car outside the constituency office of East Belfast Alliance MP Naomi Long on Monday night, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers said that protestors were, ‘doing untold damage to hard-pressed traders in the run-up to Christmas.’

‘And they undermine those who are working tirelessly to promote Northern Ireland to bring about investment, jobs and prosperity,’ Ms Villiers said.

Many are worried that images of burning flags and rioters on the streets, so redolent of the dark days of the Troubles, could do lasting damage to the North’s hard won reputation as a tourist destination. ‘Probably the biggest cost is the whole impact of what’s happening on Belfast as a destination,’ Bob McCoubrey, proprietor of the Mourne Seafood Bar, said.

Having invested heavily in an international campaign entitled ‘Our Time, Our Place’ for 2012, the wave of protests are the last thing Northern Ireland Tourist Board, or the local economy, needs. ‘A lot of people south of the border have never come to Northern Ireland. This won’t help to encourage them to come,’ said Mr McCoubrey.

Questions have been raised about the decision to vote on the controversial issue of the flag on Belfast City Hall at such an important time of the business years. In HMV, manager James Rider was ‘concerned’ that councillors did not decide to postpone the vote until the New Year given its potential effect during the busiest trading period of the year. ‘Given the current economic climate in Northern Ireland, I just can’t see why someone would not have gone, ‘hang on, let’s push this decision back’. There was obviously going to be some sort of political fall out to it.’

Others believe that, regardless of the timing, Northern Irish leaders need to focus on the economic issues, not national symbols. ‘The number one priority should be ‘what impact will this have on the economy?’ They (the politicians) talk about tourism and the economy all year round but when they get a chance to take a cheap shot at the other side, this is both sides, they cannot resist it,’ Mr McCoubrey said. ‘The rest of the world has moved on. And the business community is stuck in the middle.’

Northern Ireland is certainly facing challenging economic times. Most of the protesters hail from working class Protestant communities scarred by de-industralisation and with some of the lowest levels of educational attainment anywhere in the UK. Meanwhile, unemployment continues to rise in Northern Ireland, even as it is falling elsewhere in the UK.

Earlier this week, the latest Labour Force Survey showed that the number of people claiming unemployment benefits in Northern Ireland is up almost one per cent on last year, at 7.8 per cent.  The number of people claiming unemployment related benefits stood at 64,700 in November 2012 – an increase of 500 on the previous month. 54.6 per cent of those unemployed in Northern Ireland have been unemployed for one year or more. This figure is up 16.2 per cent on last year.

Even before this week’s unrest, businesses in Northern Ireland faced a tough trading environment. One in five shops in Northern Ireland are now vacant, according to a recent survey by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC). This figure, the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, is nearly twice the national average.

‘Belfast already has 1 in 4 shops vacant and the overall trend is moving toward a quarter of all shops being vacant by the middle of 2013,’ said Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts. The protests, he said, could lead to increases in vacancy. Many shop owners are also afraid of attacks on their property.

‘What we need now is to focus on how to move things forward,’ Roberts said. ‘This is the responsibility of all the main political parties at Stormont. We cannot afford for these protests to continue. I would appeal to the protesters to recognise the damage they are doing to the economy and to stop.’

The article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 16/12/2012. 

Book Review: The Oil Road

The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello.

These are straitened times for BP. The oil giant faces a slew of civil and criminal suits arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. In October, Azerbaijan’s autocratic president Ilham Aliyev chastised the company for its failure to meet production targets in the Caspian Sea. BP’s ‘grave mistakes’ have cost the oil-dependent Caucasus state $8.1bn in lost revenue over the past three years, the Azeri president claimed.

Azerbaijan is in the midst of an oil boom, as anyone who watched the coverage of year’s Eurovision song contest from the Azeri capital Baku will attest. The once-rusting Soviet city is now dominated by shimmering skyscrapers, funded by profits from Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli, a huge field 120km off the coast of Azerbaijan controlled mainly by BP. Oil from ACG constitutes around 1 per cent of total global production.

Part-travelogue, part-reportage, the Oil Road is a powerful – if slightly repetitive – account of how a valuable natural resource can turn a tiny elite into plutocrats, destabilise nations and ruin the lives of ordinary people. Told through a series of vignettes and diary pieces, the book traces the journey of Azeri oil, from its extraction in the Caspian Sea all the way to the City of London, where BP’s financial power is consolidated.

Channelling the spirit of Wilfred Thesiger and Paddy Fermor, the authors follow the route of the 1,100-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, known as BTC, which connects the fecund Caspian fields with container ships on the edge of Europe. ‘What is shipped from the BTC terminal is a raw commodity in bulk, extracted from weaker nations and transported to the most powerful.’ It’s a journey that takes them overland from Azerbaijan to Turkey before finally arriving in Bavaria, where ACG’s black gold powers the industrial furnaces of Central Europe.

Marriott and Minio-Paluello show time and again how the oil industry has captured putatively sovereign states. Legislation is passed at the behest of BP executives, at times with the direct assistance of Western politicos.

In Turkey, one of the authors is detained near the pipeline. A secretary for energy and environment at the British embassy in Ankara calls, not to assist but to warn the writers against visiting villages affected by the pipeline without permission. No such prohibition exists in Turkish law. ‘[A]s in Azerbaijan and Georgia, the arbitrary power of the state is being utilised to prevent BP’s pipeline being scrutinised.’

For the next four decades villagers living near the BTC are forbidden from building anything within 40 metres of the pipeline. Although two Turkish children die while playing on a construction site adjacent to the pipeline, ‘(q)uestions about compensation are met with a snort of derision.’ In Georgia, locals whose homes were built near the route complain that BP, ‘send the police force instead of coming to meet us themselves.’

Western interest in the Caucasus has long been mediated by oil. From the 1870s to the 1900s, Azeri crude was the bedrock of a flourishing kerosene industry. By the turn of the 20th century, the Oil Road’s exports fuelled factories across Europe and Asia. So dependent were the British that after World War I they sent troops to support the short-lived anti-Soviet Centro-Caspian Dictatorship. ‘We are not here to put down Bolshevism, but to guard British capital sunk in the old fields,’ a Corporal in the expedition wrote to his mother in July 1919.

The Oil Road was a busy nexus at the crossroads of much 20th century history. We meet Stalin, or Koba as he was originally known in Georgia; the Futurists in the fascist city-state of Fiume; the Nazis; and the Red Army Faction.

This is no dry historiography, however. References to Lermontov and Marco Polo, Kemal and Ruskin pepper a highly readable text (Although some slipshod editing has left a lot of unnecessary and distracting repetition).

Unlike the Silk Road, which the title consciously echoes, the contemporary Oil Road is haunted by the spectre of climate change. Despite BP’s rebranding as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, less than one per cent of its turnover comes from renewable energy. Indeed, the company supports groups in the US that actively deny global warming.

Earlier this month, Ireland-based oil and gas company Providence Resources announced that a field at Barryroe, off the coast of Cork, is expected to yield 280million barrels of oil. Irish politicians, and citizens, would do well to heed the OilRoad’s cautionary lesson: without proper social and environmental oversight, oil can be a boon for a powerful few and a disaster for everyone else.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.

Kosovo Goes it Alone

Mother Teresa Boulevard is a street pregnant with symbolism. At one end of the wide, pedestrianized thoroughfare that runs through the centre of Pristina, an imposing statue of Albanian hero Skanderbeg stands in the shadow of Kosovo’s parliament building. A couple of hundred metres south sits the Communist-era Grand Hotel. When war broke out in 1999, notorious Serb paramilitary leader Arkan reputedly made his base here, in what was the Kosovan capital’s most opulent hotel.

Mother Tersea Boulevard was the obvious location for a ‘peace concert’ held last month to celebrate the end of the four-year long supervision of Kosovo’s independence. On a warm September evening, after politicians and diplomats had declared ‘chapter closed in the Balkans’ and executive powers were formally transferred to the Kosovan Assembly, local musicians played for free on a specially constructed stage halfway down the Boulevard. By 10.30pm, only a couple of dozen had turned out to watch.

It’s not that Pristina was quiet, far from it. All along Mother Teresa, cafes and bars were thronged with young Kosovans waving red and black Albanian flags and shouting — in support not of independence, but of the Albanian national team, who were taking on Switzerland in a World Cup qualifier. The Swiss side had three players of Kosovan descent in their line-up, Albania half a dozen. For Kosovans, with no national team of their own, this was the biggest game in a generation.

The boycott of the peace concert was not, however, simply a reflection of poor scheduling and Kosovo’s passion for football. Many, particularly the young, have grown steadily disillusioned with life in Europe’s youngest state. Unemployment is high; wages are low; so, increasingly is turnout at elections. Stability has not solved the problem of corruption – Kosovo placed just 112th in the 2011 Transparency International Corruption Index. The country remains internally divided, with a restive, Serb-dominated north rejecting Pristina’s writ.

‘There is dissatisfaction among the young,’ Dren Pozhegu, a youthful policy analyst, told me over a coffee on George Bush Street in downtown Pristina. ‘I feel this apathy among people, they have lost the belief in change.’

Kosovo’s declaration of independence, in February 2008, was greeted with scenes of joy on the streets of Pristina. As British journalist Tim Judah recounts, a huge cake in the shape of Kosovo appeared on Mother Teresa Boulevard; a nearby lingerie shop even dressed its scantily clad mannequin in Albania’s colours.

Such patriotic displays were absent last month, when the decision by to end the international supervision of Kosovo’s independence was formally ratified. However, politically Kosovo is inching closer to full independence.Previously, the International Civilian Representative had the right to override legislation passed by the elected Kosovan assembly. The ICR’s mandate is now finished and the International Civilian Office (ICO) will close by the end of the year.

For the first time in its history the Kosovan assembly has unfettered legislative power. ‘Now Kosovans can do stupid things and the only way we can stop them is through persuasion,’ said Robert Wilton, the ICO’s former head of policy. ‘Before if they did something stupid an international could change it’.

‘Kosovo is fully independent,’ former International Civilian Representative Pieter Feith told the Sunday Business Post at a conference to commemorate the end of supervised independence in Pristina last month. ‘(Kosovo) has its own legal and constitutional frameworks, but more importantly it is a country with a European perspective,’ the Dutch diplomat said, after a testy press conference with Serbian media in which he was probed about war crimes allegedly committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army during the 1999 war and chided about the failures of EULEX, the EU the rule of law mission in Kosovo.

The small Balkan nation of around two million people, roughly 90 per cent of which are ethnic Albanian, is now recognised by almost a hundred states around the world, including 22 of 27 European Union countries. But the United Nations does not recognise Kosovo’s six-starred flag. Relations with Serbia remain frosty. Serbia, which Kosovo was a formerly province of, refuses to countenance Kosovan independence. Wary of its own restive regions, Russia has remained unwavering in its support for the Serbs on the issue of Kosovo.

It’s a popular position among early morning espresso drinkers in La Dolce Vita, a café-cum-bar that overlooks the main bridge over the river Ibar, on the northern bank of the town of Mitrovica. ‘No-one here recognises the government in Pristina,’ says a middle-aged man. ‘Everyone wants Belgrade to be their centre.’

The Ibar provides a natural barrier between Serb-dominated north Mitrovica and the largely Albanian south. Our friendly waiter wears a t-shirt with Cyrillic lettering emblazoned across the front. Nearby a red, blue and white flag hangs limply from a lamppost. A little further up the street, a rusting Yugo drives past a billboard proclaiming a smiling Russian president Vladimir Putin ‘Our Honorary Citizen’.

The economic powerhouse of Kosovo during the Yugoslav regime, Mitrovica, around 40km north of Pristina, was effectively split in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 war. After 78 days of NATO bombings succeeded in driving Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb troops out of Kosovo, Mitrovica became a battleground. Troops from the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) were unable to prevent population expulsions on both sides. Now around 17,000 Serbs live on the northern lip, divided from the 50,000 Albanians in south by the Ibar river.

The north is ‘the biggest challenge’ facing the young Kosovan state, says Robert Wilton, former head of policy at the ICO. KFOR, which Ireland remains a small part of, has designated the security situation in Kosovo ‘calm and stable’, with one exception — the ‘tense and fragile’ tract of territory, roughly 500 square miles, north of the Ibar. Home to over a third of Kosovo’s 100,000 Serbs, ‘North Kosovo’ takes in urban north Mitrovica as well as three less densely populated municipalities that lie between the town and the border with Serbia proper.

On a bright, fresh morning, I am the only civilian the bridge. Walking from south of the river, as close as an Albanian taxi driver will take me, I pass graffiti in praise of UCK (the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the disinterested eyes of uniformed Italian Carabinieri stationed on the bridge. High up on a hill a beautiful Serbian Orthodox Church glistens in the sunlight. Below it, a commanding socialist monument to the nearby Trepca mine marks the main Bosniak and Albanian neighbourhoods that remain in north Mitrovica. On the Serb side of the bridge, middle-aged men sit smoking, huddled around a makeshift tent ringed with Serb flags. These are the ‘bridge watchers’, whose unofficial job it is to monitor who enters, and leaves, the north.

The bridge watchers’ task has been much easier since July of last year, when Serbs blockaded the bridge, in protest at the decision to send KFOR troops to implement customs policies at the northern border with Serbia. Interpreting this as attempt to enforce Pristina’s control in North Kosovo, Serbs revolted, erecting roadblocks, attacking customs posts and even firing live ammunition at personnel from KFOR and the EU rule of law mission, EULEX. One officer was killed.

Almost all of the barriers have been removed, but a ten-foot high mound of rocks and stones still blocks the Ibar bridge to vehicular traffic. This barricade will only be ‘removed by the people themselves as a result of a politically agreed solution’, one KFOR officer told this correspondent.

Such a solution looks unlikely, in the short term at least. ‘It is much more important that Pristina feel that they cannot break us by using force,’ said Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent Serb politician in north Mitrovica and erstwhile state secretary in the ministry of Kosovo in the Serbian government in Belgrade. ‘(If they did) the reaction would be furious.’

The scene of a fabled battle against the invading Ottomans in 1389, Kosovo holds a special place in the symbolic imaginary of Serb nationalists. For many Kosovo is, and always will be, part of Serbia. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in North Kosovo.

In February, an unofficial referendum asked residents in the municipalities north of the Ibar,“Do you accept the institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo?” Almost 100 per cent of voters said ‘no’, according to a Balkan Insight report. Just nine people in the whole of north Mitrovica turned out to vote during last year’s Kosovan elections.

Practically every government service in North Kosovo is administered from Belgrade, from schools and hospitals to road sweeping. ‘Mitrovica doesn’t have a parallel municipality, it just has the Serb municipality’, says former head of the International Civilian Office in Mitrovica, Miranda Hochberg.

The ICO was largely failed to extend its authority into North Kosovo. Civil servants are paid by Serbia; the local currency is the Serb dinar (although the Euro, official tender in the rest of Kosovo can be used, too); cars carry old Serb licences plates or, more commonly, none at all, after Pristina issued an edict banning Serb plates.

‘(Pristina) cannot organise anything in the North,’ Oliver Ivanovic says with a smile. It is a busy morning in his smoke-filled north Mitrovica constituency office. On his desk, an Orthodox Serbian cross sits beside a computer with his Facebook page open. A miniature Serb flag on a piece of cork doubles up as a paperweight. ‘Ask any Serb here, they will tell you — Kosovo institutions are Albanian.’

Boris Drobac, a community worker in the neighbouring municipality of Zvecan, agrees: ‘Before the Serbian people (who Kosovo fled during the war) come back we cannot talk about independence or cooperating with Kosovan institutions’. Drobac describes Kosovo’s independence as ‘totally illegal, adducing UN resolution 1244, which was passed in 1999 and created the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.

Built in the shadows of the Trepca mines industrial complex, Zvecan was a prosperous town under Tito. With around 23,000 workers at its height, the mine was one of the biggest employers in the former Yugoslavia. In 1989, Albanian mine workers went on a mass strike against the loss of Kosovo’s autonomy within the Yugoslav federation. Now the mines are now largely empty, two giant cooling towers and an elongated black slag the only remnants of its former glory.

Displays of Serb nationalism abound in contemporary Zvecan. The entire gable wall of a house is given over to a massive mural of Radko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general currently on trial in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Half-removed concrete barricades litter the road on the short drive from north Mitrovica to Zvecan. Billboards proclaim ‘This is Serbia’, in Serbian and English (presumably for the benefit of international forces and foreign journalists).

The six majority Serb municipalities in south and central Kosovo all accepted extensive self-government powers in the wake of independence. These measures were introduced under the 2008 blueprint for a ‘multi-ethnic’ Kosovo, the Ahtisaari plan, named after its architect, former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. Laws protecting minorities were written into the Kosovan constitution; 20 of the 120 seats in the assembly are reserved for minority parties, including ten for Serb representatives.

Partly as a result of these stipulations, a Serbian party, the Independent Liberal Party (SLS), found itself holding the balance of power after the 2010 Kosovo elections. Formed during the long Serb boycott of Kosovan institutions in the years before independence, SLS is now the minority partner in a coalition government with onetime KLA fighters, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).

Politics in North Kosovo, however, is of a very different hue. Serbs here elect members to separate municipal structures run from Belgrade. Serb parties that cooperate with Pristina struggle in the north. In July 2010, SLS general secretary, Petar Miletić, was shot in both legs in north Mitrovica, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group. Serbs participating in the Kosovan system ‘are not representing the Serb community’, says north Mitrovica politician Oliver Ivanovic.

Wary of further antagonising Serbs in the wake of last year’s fractious attempts to secure customs posts, the international community have adopted a more subtle approach to North Kosovo. The ICO-backed Mitrovica North Administrative Office hopes to encourage Serbs to apply for Kosovan papers and other administrative documents.

Whether this strategy has been successful or not depends whom you speak to: officials in Pristina argue that gradually engaging northern Serbs with the Kosovan government will eventually pay dividends. My Serb fixer will not even take me to the Mitrovica North Administrative Office for fear of repercussions from watchful locals. ‘At least once a week someone gets punished for co-operating with the Kosovan institutions,’ he tells me.

Over lunch, I meet a group of Serb men in a dingy bar in downtown north Mitrovica. Over a beer, Dejan Antic confesses that he holds Kosovan papers, A nervous quiet descends on the table. A compatriot finally breaks the silence, in a deadpan James Bond-villain voice: ‘When we finish the conversation we will kill him.’ None of his drinking companions admit to taking Kosovo papers. ‘They want to force us to take the Kosovo documents but we won’t,’ says Boris Drobac.

Like many on both sides of the Ibar, Antic, a soft-spoken man in his late thirties, answers the question, ‘how long have you been in Mitrovica?’ with a date. In his case, March 18 2004. That was the day he was forced to leave Svinjare, a Serb village in north Kosovo that was razed to the ground by ethnic Albanians in the worst outbreak of violence since the war. The disorder followed the drowning of an Albanian child in the Ibar. By the time it was finished eight Albanians and 11 Serbs were dead, hundreds were injured and the sclerotic ethnic geography of the region had ossified further.

‘KFOR did nothing to stop it,’ says Antic, who was expelled from his home in eastern Kosovo as a child. During the 1999, he was forced to leave the town of Obilic, near Pristina.Serbs often point to desecrations of Orthodox Churches across Kosovo as evidence of a systematic campaign against them by ethnic Albanians.

As in many conflicts, the figures for casualties in the Kosovo war are often disputed. A total of 13,421 people were killed from 1 January 1998 up until December 2000, according to a 2008 joint study by Humanitarian Law Center, The International Commission on Missing Person, and the Missing Person Commission of Serbia. Of that sum, 10,533 were Albanians, 2,238 were Serbs, 126 Roma, 100 Bosniaks and others. Serbs argue that these figures neglect these kin killed in retaliatory attacks after the war.

Less disputed is the fact that North Kosovo has become an outlaw frontier in the centre of Europe. An area over 70,000 people and no effective customs and excise regime, North Mitrovica has become the centre of myriad smuggling rackets. Cigarettes are duty-free; petrol often sells at 40cents a litre less than south of the Ibar (or in Serbia).

‘The north is basically a tax free corruption zone’, says Miranda Hochberg, former head of the ICO in Mitrovica. North Kosovo, with its labyrinthine administrative structures, is ripe for graft. ‘There’s a lot of money flowing into Kosovo from Belgrade but it doesn’t go anywhere.’

Despite having its mandate extended for a further two years last month, EULEX, the EU’s rule of law mission, failed to address the problems in the north, says former ICO head of policy Robert Wilton. ‘EULEX basically sees the north as Mordor: “The north is a terrible place, we’re all going to die”. This creates an image, anyone sitting on the north side of the bridge see EULEX in short sleeves flirting with local girls, then they only comes into the north in armed people carriers.’

Over the bridge in south Mitrovica the atmosphere is noticeably less tense. It’s late afternoon and the cafes are busy with young people, drinking coffee and chatting freely in Albanian. Near the former Lux department store, a relic of Yugoslavia’s more free market variant of socialism, children queue to have their faces painted.

Bajram Rexhepi, an aging Albanian cigarette seller, lived in north Mitrovica for his entire life until February 2, 2000 when he and his wife were expelled. ‘People just took my property,’ he says. Previously Rexhepi worked as an economist at the Trepca mines, before losing his job in a mass expulsion of Albanians. He never crosses the bridge but misses his old neighbourhood, and his old Serb friends. ‘I’m nostalgic for that part of the city now, I miss it.’

Across the road from the onetime UN headquarters, just south of the bridge, sits Community Building Mitrovica. Created in 2001 by the Dutch charity Interchurch Peace Council, CBM ‘aims is to serve as a bridge between the two communities’ — but it faces daily challenges. For one project worker, a young Serb from north Mitrovica, the job interview at CBM was the first time crossing the bridge in 12 years.

‘In Mitrovica everything is political. To try and find common issues between the two communities is hard,’ says Aferdita Syla, CBM’s executive director. Community Building Mitrovica works primarily with young people, women, internally displaced people on both sides of the bridge. ‘But in the north, we’re seen as an Albanian organisation, in the south seen as an organisation that works with Serbs’.

Syla is highly critical of the tendency – both within and without Kosovo – to view Mitrovica’s problems as primarily a product of ethnic difference. ‘Politicians often tell us that Mitrovica is an ethnic problem, but it is not so much an ethnic problem as other problems; unemployment, social problems, water, electricity. Nobody mentions those – this is something that politicians should concentrate on.’

Until now, politicians have been preoccupied with Kosovo’s constitutional future. In 2011, current Serbian Prime Minister Ivia Dacic proposed the partition of Kosovo north of the Ibar river as a ‘realistic’ solution the dispute in the North. The notion of partition, potentially explosive in the ethnic patchwork on the Balkans, has been widely renounced by the international community. In Pristina recently, outgoing International Civilian Representative Pieter Feith rejected the idea outright, saying that Kosovans ‘rightly believe that the North is part of Kosovo. This is not only their view, it is shared in Brussels, in the (European) Commission’.

Calls for special autonomy for the North have fallen on deaf ears in Pristina, where politicians point to the extensive self-government powers that already exist but which northern Serbs have not taken advantage of. However, on the streets of Mitrovica the mood is very different. ‘The real problem is central Kosovo – you have 20 Serbs in Pristina, zero Serbs in Pec. That is the problem, not Mitrovica. Mitrovica is the solution’, says Dejan Antic, who works on a project to develop small businesses in north Mitrovica.

‘If the democratic will of the people is respected the North will never be part of this Kosovo but if the international community forces allows the Albanian government to extend Kosovo institutions in the North, we will have a situation like 1999’.

The prospect, however distant, of EU membership could yet encourage Kosovo and Serbia to reach a settlement. Speaking at the United Nations last week, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said that the two prospective EU candidates must normalise relations, although he added that partition ‘would never happen’. The EU, crucially, with the imprimatur of the US ambassador to Kosovo, is hoping to organise talks this month with a view to settling the question of the North.

Despite tensions on the ground, and between the two national governments in Belgrade and Pristina, the prospect of return to open hostility in Kosovo is remote. ‘With the exception of the north, which is largely EULEx’s fault, there is no security issue in Kosovo’, says Robert Wilton.

Even in North Kosovo, violence on the scale witnessed in March 2004 is considered unlikely. ‘I doubt there will be a big clash,’ says Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic. ‘There are so many weapons on both sides, it would be stupid to put the fire too close to the gasoline.’

There are measures the Pristina government could take to assuage an anxious Serb community. Widening public sector opportunities for Serbs would help: less than one per cent of the 12,000-plus workers in publicly owned enterprises are Serbs, according to the International Crisis Group. Many of Serbs expelled from Pristina, Prizren, and other Kosovan regions during and after the war have struggled to get their property back. Serbian is rarely used or understood beyond the handful of Serb municipalities, although it is an official language of the Kosovan state,

But the main stumbling block remains the economy. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and almost certainly the highest rate of unemployment — unofficial estimates suggest that as many of 40 per cent of the population are out of work. Among those aged 15 to 25 the figure is even higher. Kosovo needs to create around 25,000 new jobs every year just to maintain employment at its current level, says Lumir Abdixhiku, executive director of Reinvest institute, a Pristina-based think tank.

Last year, Kosovo exported just €300m, leaving it with a trade deficit of €2.2bn, according to Abdixhiku. Without remittances from Switzerland, the UK and, in particular, Germany, the economy would be in even worse shape. Typical annual interest rates on loans to Kosovan businesses run at 40 per cent. Crippling visa restrictions make foreign travel onerous, hindering young Kosovans in particular.

Petrit Selimi, the articulate, youthful deputy minister at the department of foreign affairs is confident that the end of supervised independence will mark a new chapter in Kosovan history. ‘Considering the enormity of the challenge I think we have coped very well,’ he says, citing Kosovo’s average annual GDP growth of around 4 per cent.

‘Kosovo is not a failed state. Kosovo is not a dark zone, We have been told so much by Serbian propagandists that sometimes we start believing it, but it’s not the case.’

Back in Zvecan, living in a de facto state is bad for legitimate business, regardless of ethnicity. ‘If I want to send anything in Serbia I need an export permit, it I want to sell anything in Kosovo I need an import permit’, say Milija Radenkovic, 60, who runs gas station and small farm in North Kosovo.

Radenkovic has been forced to lay off staff in recent months. His three sons have all moved to Serbia. He doubts they will ever return. ‘Our young people they finish their studies here but we don’t have opportunities for employment here so they are leaving for Serbia or the West’, he says.

‘For people who are thinking about themselves and their family, they don’t care about the politics, they only care about the economic situation’.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post October 7, 2012. 

Junot Diaz — Dominican-American Psyche

Interview with American-Dominican novelist, appeared in the Sunday Business Post, September 2. 

Growing up in 1970s New Jersey, Junot Diaz was a self-confessed ‘book slut’. The young Dominican immigrant — his family arrived in the United States when he was just six — read everything from Richard Adams and Enid Blyton to graphic novels.

At the age of eight, the voracious Diaz worked his way through all 25 installments of a series entitled the Young American Biographies. ‘They were these hundred page things about famous white, almost all male Americans,’ he recalls some four decades later, perched on a white plastic garden chair on the lush grounds of the Edinburgh book festival. ‘I thought, ‘If I read these I will seem more American’. Not realising that nobody knew any of these people, and reading them made me seem even more of an alien.’

The ‘Otherness’ of the immigrant experience, the disjuncture between the origin country and the destination, has been a hallmark of Diaz’s fiction since he emerged, seemingly fully formed, onto the American literary scene over fifteen years ago. His first book of short stories, 1996’s Drown, explored the childhood and early adult life of Yunior, an intelligent but misogynistic Dominican-American, through a series of snippets and brief glimpses written in the idiosyncratic Spanglish hybrid for which Diaz has become renowned.

Drown was succeeded in 2007 by The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao. A multi-faceted tale of modern life in the Dominican Republic and the US, Oscar Wao is, in the words of New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, ‘so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West.’

The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao, which Diaz won a Pulitzer Prize for, was narrated by Yunior, and the writer has returned to the same character for his new collection, This Is How You Lose Her. In the book’s opening story, ‘The Sun, the Moon, the Stars’, Yunior’s girlfriend discovers that he has been cheating on her and, after an ill-fated holiday in the Dominican Republic, breaks up with him.

What follows is a series of interlinked tales of Junior’s dysfunctional relationships with a string of women and, as he enters his 40s, a realisation of the hurt he has caused others slowly dawns upon him. The book culminates with The Cheater’s Guide to Love, an expertly drawn dissection of Yunior’s growing sense of shame about his behaviour set amid the backdrop his own corporeal failings.

Yunior’s relationship with Diaz — and Diaz’s with his most famous literary creation – is one of the most interesting aspects of both his writing and his personality. A short, well-built man with dark-rimmed glasses, Diaz looks younger than his 44 years. He wears a tight t-shirt, blue demins and running shoes. He speaks in the same sharp, rapidfire sentences that he writes in, but his tone is less snarky, more circumspect. When our hour-long conversation turns to Yunior, as it often does, Diaz talks as one would a close family member or old acquaintance. There are certainly many similarities between  the puppeteer and his puppet: both Diaz and Yunior are Dominican Americans, both went to Rutgers, both are unmarried and childless, both are now professors teaching in Boston (in Diaz’s case, at MIT).

‘I always think of Yunior as the supreme imposter. He fits the bill close enough that he could borrow all my clothes, he could live in my apartment without the neighbours noticing, but in reality it’s a different person’ says Diaz. ‘(Yunior) takes elements of myself and distorts them, puts them under such torsion that no matter how much he borrows my clothes and borrows my vitae, none of my friends would ever say ‘this person is you.’

The character and its creator may be discrete entities, but Yunior often acts as a conduit for Diaz’s concerns and experiences, including the novelist’s acceptance of his own mistreatment of women. Diaz, whose speech is a curious mix of the profane and the prolix, describes growing up ‘in a universe where a lot of dude’s didn’t think of women as people’. Yunior’s journey in This Is How You Lose Her ‘was modelled on that same recognition in my own life where I realised that ‘yeah, you might not like seeing people being hurt but you think of (women) not as being people, and you walk all over them’.’

For Diaz, this attitude towards women is intimately bound up with immigrant, and particularly the colonial, experience: ‘One doesn’t need a history of colonialism to be fucked up towards women but I think it must play a role. One of the aspects of being a colonial subject is its emasculation.’

Whether an acknowledgement of what Diaz calls ‘colonial masculinities compensatory relationship towards women’ actually leads to behaviour change is more uncertain. In The Cheater’s Guide to Love, Yunior finally recognises that he was wholly responsible for destroying his relationship with his fiancee, but would he – or, indeed, Diaz – make the same mistakes all over again?

The author, who has recently started a new relationship, is guarded about the specifics of his personal life but admits that it is ‘much harder to alter your behaviour and face the truth than it is to just go back to being who you used to be.’ Now in his 40s, Diaz is finding the cumulative effect of such destructive, masculine behaviour increasingly burdensome. ‘The accumulation (of memories) has gained a mass where it’s making the forgetting impossible,’ he says, wearing a look of weary resignation. Diaz ‘always envied my friends who didn’t run out of rope’, who could continue cheating on their girlfriends and acting the traditional male with impunity, but like his leading man, Yunior, he ‘found himself backed into a corner. I got tired’.

‘Some of us run the fuck out of rope. We’re not any better but we don’t have the psychic elasticity anymore. Suddenly something about us breaks. If I’d had more rope I’d have probably kept on going but I didn’t.’

Diaz locates the origin of his behaviour in the ‘thin, very, very thin’ ethical imagination he, and other immigrant boys, grew up with. Central to this socialisation was his family, especially his father. ‘My dad fucked us up,’ Diaz laughs, echoing Philip Larkin’s earthy adage about parents’ Freudian impact on their offspring.

The Dominican Republic that the Diazes left in the 1970s was an extremely militaristic society. Diaz senior fought in the army during the 1965 revolution, which followed the overthrow of the democratically elected left-wing government, and lead to the installment, with the CIA’s backing, of the regime of Joacquin Balaguer. The pater familias instilled in his children an adoration of the military – ‘in our household it was what one aspired to.’

Diaz’s reels off his family’s army ties: a brother who served in the Balkans, two more cousins in the US military, a sister that married an army man. His elder brother was on course to enlist before he died of cancer at an early age.

As a bookish child with no interest in military life, Diaz was the ‘febrile black sheep’ in his staunchly working class New Jersey immigrant family: ‘It was very difficult for me, all my brothers used to box. I was terrible at it. My older brother all the time would accuse me of throwing matches because I hated to see people getting hurt.’

Diaz is no longer in contact with his father, who lives in Florida, but he remains very close to his Dominican roots. He returns to Santo Domingo three or four times a year. Although he now divides his time between his apartment in Harlem, in New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, he regularly returns to his native New Jersey, where many of his friends and family still live.

Growing up in a Latino neighbourhood in the 1980s — surrounded by refugees from conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — was a deeply politicising experience. ‘The average American had no news from the wars in Central America but we were watching Spanish language networks where it was non-stop. My ‘80s were so different to everyone else’s ‘80s. Every time they massacred a village it was on the news.’ Diaz soon found himself caught up in the anti-Reagan moment spreading across the American left, a place on the political spectrum he still calls home.

A career as a writer gestated, indirectly, from his youthful political exposure. Majoring in history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, he intended to embark on a career as a historian but found that he lacked the necessary ‘punctiliousness and exactitude’. Besides, ‘all the things I was interested in were impossible to describe outside fiction’.

At university, Diaz’s specialist subject was genocide – as if to demonstrate his knowledge, he tells me, with supreme authority, that the Guatemalan conflict ‘was the only war that United Nations declared a genocide’. His fiction shares this interest in the absent, the untold and the untellable. ‘There is always something missing in an enormous way in my work, the characters are always revolving around this aporia.’ The lacuna in This Is How You Lose Her is Yunior’s fiancee, who features only as reported speech, as a figure on the edge of the narrative.

Diaz knows all too well what it feels like to be on the cusp of multiple stories and places. An immigrant who has found acceptance at the heart of the literary establishment; a Dominican raised in the US; a male struggling with his familial and colonial baggage, Diaz is nothing if not, in one of his favourite words, simultaneous. ‘I trouble Dominicans in Santo Domingo as much as I trouble Americans. They don’t like liminal figures.

Dissident Republicans A Threat But Lack Capacity

Dissident republicans ‘intent to disrupt the peace process outstrips their capacity,’ a leading expert on paramilitaries in Northern Ireland has told the Sunday Business Post. Speaking in the wake of last week’s announcement that the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a loose collection of independent republican groups intend to form a coalition under the IRA banner, Professor Jon Tonge said that he doubted the move would give anti-ceasefire republicans ‘any great tactical advantage’

‘Unity won’t necessarily equal strength,’ said Tonge, a Professor at the University of Liverpool and author of a 2010 study that found that as much as 14 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland have some sympathy for anti-cease groups. ‘There would have to be some horrendous mistake by the security forces for the dissidents to gain widespread support.’

Details of the unified organisation remain sketchy but its formation has heightened fears that dissidents could be planning a renewed campaign of violence. Last Friday, the day that the new republican grouping was announced, a shot was fired at a Police Service of Northern Ireland vehicle in West Belfast. Óglaigh na hÉireann, a republican splinter group not aligned to the new faction, is believed to be behind the attack. The attack follows serious disturbances in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast during last month’s Twelfth of July Orange marches.

The anti-ceasefire umbrella group is coalescing with the intention of taking over the IRA mantle. Leaders have styled themselves as the ‘IRA army council’, mimicking the structures used by previous iterations of the organisation. Among the republicans who have joined the new organisation are those responsible for the murder of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic PSNI recruit, in April 2011.

Estimates of dissidents’ strength vary. Last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland put the numbers of people involved in anti-ceasefire republican activity at around 650. While dissidents have little traction in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein remains the dominant political force, they have pockets of support in North Belfast, Lurgan and Derry. Their ranks were swelled by an influx of disillusioned former mainstream IRA members from 2007 on, after Sinn Fein’s decision to support policing in Northern Ireland.

Supporters of dissident republicanism are ‘mainly young, working class men living in areas of multiple deprivation,’ said Professor Tonge, who believes that the new dissident coalition is about trying to build credibility for an increasingly disparate movement. ‘It’s about saying ‘we are the IRA now’’, he said.

In a statement released to coincide with the announcement, the new group said that anti-ceasefire republicanism has ‘come together within a unified structure, under a single leadership, subservient to the constitution of the Irish Republican Army.

‘The root cause of conflict in our country is the subversion of the nation’s inalienable right to self-determination and this has yet to be addressed,’ the statement continued. In a thinly veiled attack on Sinn Fein, the dissidents criticised the ‘phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont’.

Condemnation of the statement from across the Northern Irish political spectrum has been swift. ‘This latest attempt by dissident republicans to form yet another ‘new IRA’ highlights the lengths that they will go to in order to create destruction within our society,’ Ulster Unionist Party justice spokesman Tom Elliott MLA told the Belfast Telegraph.

Sinn Fein reiterated their public calls for the dissidents to stand down.  ‘There is no community support for these groups. They need to desist and they need to realise that they cannot achieve a united Ireland in this way,’ Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein MLA for North Belfast, said in an interview to the republican newspaper An Phoblacht earlier this week.

‘That is not to say that they cannot be dangerous,” Kelly continued.

‘They have in the past killed people, the majority of whom have been from the nationalist community. However, these actions can take us nowhere.’

The dissident threat has risen in recent years. In March 2009, the Real IRA shot two off duty British soldiers dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two days later the Continuity IRA killed PC Stephen Carroll in Craigavon, County Armagh.

Since 2009, security forces have intercepted increasing numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is on the rise but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated. The creation of an anti-ceasefire coalition further increases the risk of infiltration. Indeed, rumours that several senior figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months.

The dissidents lack weapons, a point underlined by last year’s successful prosecution of suspected Real IRA member Michael Campbell on gunrunning charges in Lithuania. Post-9/11 funds for terrorism are increasingly hard to come by in Irish-America.

Given these constraints, a return to large-scale violence in the North is unlikely, says Professor Tonge. ‘You cannot dismiss the idea that violence will ever return, but the structural factors aren’t there any more.’  The religious discrimination that fuelled the Troubles is largely a thing of the past. Crucially, the income gap between Catholic and Protestants has all but disappeared. The creation of a post-peace process Catholic middle class has limited the pool of potential recruits to the dissident cause.

Anti-ceasefire republicans are, however, still capable of bringing mayhem to the streets of a Northern Ireland. Any upsurge in violence could have repercussions for North’s fragile local economy. House prices here have declined by more than 50 per cent, when adjusted for inflation, according to a recent survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed continues to rise. Since the credit crunch began in August 2007, NI’s unemployment register has risen by 39,100 or 166 per cent.

‘(The dissident threat) is not good from an economic development perspective but the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland have moved on,’ Nigel Smyth, director of CBI Northern Ireland told the Sunday Business Post. ‘It doesn’t feature in business conversations. We’ve been through this and worse before.’

‘The formation of a new grouping is ‘more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents’, said Professor Tonge.

‘The dissidents themselves do not believe that they can get the British out of Northern Ireland. What they do think they can do is to stop Northern Ireland becoming normal.’

This piece appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 5 August.

Treating Longford’s Heroin Problem

Below is a long-form piece on heroin in my home town of Longford, and the paucity of treatment facilities for addicts, which originally appeared in July 1 edition of the Sunday Business Post.

He smiles when he recalls the first time he used. It was 1995 and he was 17, just out of secondary school in his native Longford. Every few weeks he would travel 25 miles to Athlone to get his hands on some hash, something he enjoyed smoking with his friends but was difficult to get in Longford. One day the man he met in Athlone had something new, something he’d never seen before: heroin.

‘I’d never even heard of it, except from Father Kenny (a priest in the local secondary school),’ says Paul, not his real name, sipping from a glass of Lucozade in an empty bar in Longford town, less than a mile from where I grew up. That night in Athlone he injected for the first time: ‘The (dealer) said it was the only way he knew how to take it.’

His life was never the same again. Nowadays he is clean but his blackened teeth and gaunt frame are testimony to over a decade spent on and off heroin, in and out of jail in Ireland and England.

If heroin was ‘unknown’ in the Longford of 1995, that is no longer the case. Heroin is ‘a significant problem’ in county Longford, with numbers requiring treatment ‘increasingly considerably’, according to Close to Home, a report published by the Midland Regional Drugs Task Force in 2010. In 2004, just one person in the whole county presented for treatment for either heroin or cocaine use; by 2007 the number of cases had jumped to 28. As use has increased so too have deaths. Within the past year and a half, at least two people I know personally have died in Longford while using heroin.

Like many places outside Dublin, treatment services in Longford have struggled – and, at times, failed – to catch up with the rise in heroin use. Many health professionals, particularly doctors, are wary of dealing with users. Until very recently, needle exchange operated out of a shopping centre car park on the edge of town. There is still no methadone clinic or no full-time drugs service in the town.

Paul has witnessed first hand the spread of heroin in Longford. ‘Back in the late 90s there were six of us users in the whole of the county. Now it’s like walking around Dublin, down Thomas Street or Meath Street. It’s multiplied a thousand fold, it’s unbelievable,’ he says.

‘It shocks me to see the number of people on (heroin) in Longford. People who would have looked down on you for doing it, people from good families are all on it.’

He is visibly nervous to be back in Longford, back where he spent so many years using. Now living in the countryside he has driven in especially to meet me and will leave as soon as our conversation is finished. ‘I stay away from (Longford town), it’s too easy to fall back into old ways here…everyone I know here in the town are still using.’

Heroin use is higher in Ireland than in any other EU state, according to a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction released at the end of last year. There are, on average, eight cases of heroin use per 1,000 people in the 15-64 age group in Ireland, compared with an average of four across the European Union.

Where previously heroin was largely a metropolitan problem, its use has spread far beyond the deprived inner-city neighbourhoods, where it first emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The National Drugs Strategy, published in 2009, acknowledges this changing geography. The ‘nature and scale of the drug problem in Ireland’ has, the Strategy says, ‘undergone some notable changes’: ‘While the prevalence of heroin has ameliorated to an extent in the Dublin area, this has been offset to a degree by its wider dispersal around the country.’

The number of cases presenting for treatment with opiate problems (mainly heroin) outside Dublin has risen dramatically over the last decade, according to treatment data from the National Documentation Centre on Drugs Use (NDC). In 2004, NDC records show that 103 people sought treatment for opiate problems in the Midlands (counties Westmeath, Laois, Offaly and Longford). By 2010, this figure across the four counties had more than doubled, to 208.

It is worth noting that the treatment data relates to an individual treatment episode and not an individual. The same person could, in theory, be counted more than once if they tried and failed a program, most likely methadone, and returned again within a calendar year. Nevertheless, treatment figures are a useful heuristic for estimating heroin use, especially as users are often unwilling to reveal details of their habit in surveys. Drugs-related deaths are also on the increase: in 2004, 12 drug users in the Midlands died due to poisoning. In 2009, this figure had risen to 23.

Heroin can now be found across the country, from Tralee to Tullamore, Bantry to Ballyshannon. ‘These days it’s available in every town in Ireland. There’s heroin in every town in Ireland,’ says Irish Sun crime correspondent Paul Williams, who grew up in Ballinamore, in neighbouring Leitrim, and cut his teeth as a reporter on the now defunct Longford News.

Longford is no exception. I grew up in College Park, a sleepy estate of pebble-dashed semis a ten-minute walk from the centre of the town. Walking through College Park a decade and a half later everything seems pretty much as it was, save a few more ‘for rent’ signs, a few less children playing on the green and the unattractive eight-foot high metal grill that blocks off both ends of the concrete pedestrian walkway that I used to walk along to get to a nearby football pitch. The council erected the barricade a couple of years ago: the walkway had become a shooting gallery for local heroin addicts.

In many respects, Longford is a fertile breeding ground for heroin. The recession has exacted a heavy toll. In the centre of town, young men lean on street corners, watching the traffic inch along the languorous one-way system. Work is in short supply: between December 2007 and April of this year, the number of people on the live register in the county more than doubled, to 5,053. Vastly improved transport links with Dublin have made it easier to transport drugs to Longford. A plethora of half-finished houses and neglected or empty estates, away from prying eyes, provide ideal venues for users.

On a bright, midweek afternoon, a local community activist takes me on a tour of an estate where Longford’s heroin problem is probably most evident. In one particularly unloved corner of this vast, sprawling mass of houses, built in the shadow of the social welfare office, a house has been freshly burnt out. Charred wood litters the driveway. Nearby a child’s bicycle lies on the pavement outside a house. In the distance, the temporary roof of St Mel’s Cathedral, gutted in a fire three years ago this Christmas day, shines in the sun.

‘That’s a shooting gallery. That was a shooting gallery,’ my guide, who was born and raised in Longford, points at an abandoned semi, graffiti on the boards where the windows should be. A little further down the street he gestures at a row of well-kept semis, a fleet of expensive cars sitting outside the front. ‘That’s a dealer’s house. That’s a dealer’s house.’

‘Many people have died of drug overdoses in the last twelve months,’ says Longford Town Councilor, Tony Flaherty. ‘Heroin and cocaine can be got as easy on the street as fags in a shop.’

A Longford doctor who treats opiate addicts says he ‘didn’t see any heroin’ when he opened his practice a decade ago, but there has been a significant increase in recent years. ‘Ninety-seven per cent are young, 20, 25, not any older. The majority belong to excellent families, are well educated.’

The GP, like many I spoke to in Longford, prefers to remain anonymous, in part due to fears of recriminations from the powerful drug dealing networks that operate in the county: ‘The people involved in the heroin business have very big hands; they can do anything, they can destroy your life,’ he responds when I ask if I can use his name in this piece.

Councilor Flaherty has experienced the omnipotence of Longford’s drug dealers first hand. In 1997, then a novice councilor, Flaherty made an impassioned speech to Longford Town Council about the influx of drugs – at the time mainly ecstasy and speed – into the town. Flaherty’s comments made local and the national news. Repercussions were swift.

Speaking to me in the town council chambers, an airy room lined with old photographs that belies its location above a supermarket in the centre of Longford, Flaherty looks down at the floor as he recalls what happened next: ‘I had just finished doing an interview with RTE and was walking back to the car. A guy came up beside me, he said ‘come here, I want to show you a problem with my house.’’ Flaherty reluctantly followed. He was met by a gang of indignant local drug dealers. ‘The ringleader had a knife in his hand. He told me what he’d do to me if I didn’t shut up about drugs in Longford.’

Almost a decade and a half on, reports of drug-related crime pepper the inside pages of the local newspaper. Most local politicians, however, are still reluctant to address the issue head on. ‘You don’t get votes for it,’ says councilor Flaherty, who admits he has some sympathy for his colleagues’ wariness when it comes to drugs: ‘I seen (what happens) myself 15 years ago. I don’t know if I’d go through that again.’

At a drop-in clinic in Longford, a community worker says official reticence about heroin, and other drugs, extends beyond fear of reprisals. ‘The people with power have been in denial for so long. They’ve said ‘there’s no problem here’ for so long, that to admit anything now would be impossible in their eyes.’

Some are concerned that any acknowledgment of a drugs problem, especially heroin, would further damage Longford’s already fragile reputation. In this climate anyone who speaks about the problem risks censor, for ‘talking down the town’ or, worse, breaching the omerta that problems should be dealt with internally, in private, if they are to be dealt with at all.

‘If publicity about the size of the problem in Longford comes out we could we could lose out but that’s a very narrow, short-term view,’ says the community worker. ‘While we continue with this policy of denial it’s only going to get worse.’

Authorities have been slow to react to the scale of the drugs problem outside the capital. ‘What’s happened in the rest of the country mirrors what happened in Dublin (in the 1980s),’ says Tony Geoghegan, director of Merchant’s Quay, a charity that which began working with drug users in Dublin in 1989, partly in response to the significant increase HIV/AIDS infection rates among heroin addicts. In recent years, Merchants Quay has expanded its services across the country: it now has two premises in Athlone, a drop-in centre and an office, as well as an outreach worker in Longford two days a week and a dedicated Traveller support worker.

Geoghegan believes there is an ‘evolution’ in the understanding of drugs in a community, starting with blanket denial and ending in an acceptance that the problem exists and needs to be addressed. ‘There will always be a percentage of any community that will have problems with drugs, just as there will always be a percentage of any community that has problems with alcohol or mental health problems,’ he says. ‘What you have to do is provide access to treatment.’

The main treatment for opiate users in Ireland is methadone, a heroin replacement that is used to stabilize addicts and, in part, to reduce the crime that is associated with the drug. The number of people on methadone programs across the country has almost trebled in less than fifteen years. In 1998, there were 3,681 people on methadone treatment across the country. At end of October 2011, 9,264 were receiving methadone, according to figures released by the Health Service Executive.

In the Midlands area, 180 clients were attending the Methadone Maintenance Programmed as of March of this year, a HSE spokesperson told the Sunday Business Post. There are also 36 pharmacists in the Midlands dispensing methadone on a daily basis to 291 clients.

Yet access to facilities is a major stumbling block for many users who want to seek treatment. Longford has no methadone clinic: anyone in the country on the methadone program is expected to travel to Athlone twice a week on a special bus to receive treatment. This time-consuming process can continue for anything up to a year or more before responsibility for prescribing and administering their methadone is passed over to a local GP and pharmacy.

Getting onto a methadone program in the first place can be difficult. The National Drugs Strategy aspired to have all problem users accessing treatment within one month of assessment by 2012. However, waiting times for methadone programs in Athlone are, on average, around nine months, a figure on a par with many other regional centres. One Longford doctor reported patients buying methadone on the street and self-medicating while waiting for a treatment slot to open up.

‘If you are trying to engage people with treatment access is crucial. Motivation comes and goes,’ says Tony Geoghegan from Merchant’s Quay, who notes that drug users from outside the capital often come to the charity’s Dublin centre in search of treatment. ‘The waiting list thing is very difficult. It can be very off-putting, especially when the nature of addiction is ambivalent – most people you talk to on heroin want to get off it but at the same time they don’t want to or they can’t,’

In many areas, there is a paucity of doctors who are qualified and willing to prescribe methadone. At present just two GPs in Longford are trained to level 1 methadone prescribing, the minimum standard required to participate in the scheme. In nearby Mullingar, there are apparently no GPs prescribing methadone.

Physicians are ‘worried about being called the ‘drug doctor’ or the ‘methadone doctor,’ says a Longford GP who does take part in the scheme. ‘But it only takes a couple of minutes to listen to these people with drug addictions, to find out what their problems are and to start helping them.’ Treating drug users could also jeopardize doctors’ far more lucrative private practice.

Methadone itself is no magic bullet. For many users it can be almost as difficult to give up as heroin. And it is not always effective. Only 27 per cent of clients complete their methadone treatment, according to the 2009 National Drug Treatment Reporting System. Another 10 per cent were reported as stable and transferred to other services and reported. One-third of clients either left the methadone program, or were refused further sessions.

Methadone is a toxic substance that, if abused, can be fatal. Methadone was implicated in 66 deaths in 2009. Heroin was involved in 108 deaths in the same year, according to research from the National Drug-Related Death Index.

Addicts often use heroin alongside their methadone, or simply sell their dose on the street. The latter can be a particularly costly pursuit: at least one addict in the Longford area is missing presumed death following threats from drug dealers about selling his methadone freelance on the street.

But methadone’s benefits outweigh its costs, says Jon Brier, a pharmacist working in Longford. ‘It depends what you deem success. If I’ve someone on 40ml of methadone and they’re not burglering people anymore to feed their habit? Well I deem that success.’ Brier is also chairperson of Longford Drugs Forum, a voluntary group established in 2007 to improve the inter-agency response to the drugs problem across the county.

Demand for drugs services and treatment is growing in rural Longford. ‘A lot of our clients would be from rural areas, literally side of the road kind of places,’ says Dawn Russell, project manager for the Ana Liffey drug project in the Midlands and North East Regions, which, since last year, has been running a one-day a week ‘harm reduction service’ in Longford, conducting needle exchange in homes around the county, providing advice and counseling, particularly for users that are under 18.

‘We very rarely get people presenting with just opiate issues’ says Russell. These ‘polydrug’ users often combine alcohol, heroin and benzodiazepines (prescription drugs used mainly for treating psychological disorders), a potent cocktail that is popular in areas right across Ireland.

The ready availability of legal drugs on Ireland’s streets has led to the introduction of legislation that will make it an offence to possess tranquilizers without a valid prescription being drawn up. Roisin Shortall, junior minister with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, hopes that this legislation will reduce the sale and resale of prescription medication.

A former opiate user living in Longford, who we will call Alan, explains how he would supplement his heroin with legal drugs: ‘I’d go around all the doctors in town trying to get anything I could. There were a couple (of doctors) that were easy enough conned. I’d score sleeping tablets, benzodiazepines, medium strength-morphine. The morphine I’d just shoot up.’

At that stage he had been on heroin for over five years. He was already an addict when he returned to Longford from overseas, but if anything his addiction got worse, not better, back home.

He lost his job, was thrown out of the family home for stealing and was living in a house near one of the main centres for heroin dealing in Longford. Besides visiting the town’s physicians, he fed his growing habit by passing dud cheques. Until, one day, the gardai, following a tip off from the bank, called to his door. Faced with a potential prison sentence, he decided to try coming off heroin. His father was ‘afraid of me’ but reluctantly agreed to let him back, if he agreed to enter a residential treatment program.

‘I didn’t sleep for the first week. At this stage I was pretty fucked, I was using all day, prescription drugs, the gear.’ He tried, and failed, a number of residential programs before finally being accepted on to a three-month program run by Marist brothers in Athlone. He has not used heroin since he left the unit, almost eight years ago. ‘I don’t think I could ever go back (to using),’ he says.

Residential units can have an important role to play in drug treatment, particularly for those on methadone long-term who want to become completely drug-free, says Tony Geoghegan from Merchant’s Quay. However, there is not enough access to these spaces. Although there are around 10,000 methadone users in the State, at any one time there are only 30 to 40 detox beds in the whole country.

The Marist centre in Athlone has closed, as have a number of similar residential programs in the Midlands area. A dedicated residential treatment centre in Mullingar, due to open in 2013, is on hold following complaints from local residents.

Alan credits the residential program with giving him a chance to stop using and to rebuild his life, but he believes the social situation he emerged back is the main reason he has been able to stay clean. ‘I was the only culchie (on the program), the rest were all Dubs. They were going back to the city. I was going home, I didn’t have to start working, I didn’t have the pressures they had. I was able to go back and stay away from all the people that reminded me of (heroin).’

People coming off drugs ‘need something positive to run alongside the change,’ says a Longford-based community worker. Many opiate users are from deprived backgrounds, lack education or work skills, have a history of unemployment and, after treatment, are returning to a community in which drugs are a major part of life.

The Attic, an after school youth café opened in 2006, is a space young people in Longford can go that is always drug-free. Next to a guitar hanging on the club’s brightly coloured walls is a poster explaining how a drugs conviction can lead to being rejected for a visa. Beside the pool table a plethora leaflets describe the effect of drugs and alcohol.

Theresa Connell, the Attic’s youthful drug education officer, says that the key is engaging with people ‘as early as possible’. ‘They’re drinking at younger, they’re getting bored quickly and the experimentation develops from there,’ she says. Delaying the first use of alcohol is crucial; the Attic, with its computers and other distractions, is one way of achieving that goal.

Tony Flaherty thinks the Attic has ‘done an awful lot’ for young people, ‘but we need three or four Attics in the town alone.’ Flaherty still believes that the justice system needs to be stronger, but his views have changed a lot in the fifteen years since he castigated Longford’s drug dealers, in the council chambers. He now thinks that recognizing the drug problem, providing treatment services for addicts and education for parents and children is the only viable option.

‘Fifteen years ago I was interested in solving the crime, now I’m about education,’ says Flaherty. ‘The issue is there, it’s the awareness that needs to be brought out.’

Outside the Box

In the late 1980s, Switzerland had a serious heroin problem. Public parks in Zurich, Bern, and other smaller Swiss cities had effectively become open-air drug markets and shooting galleries. Dealers sold heroin in broad daylight. Addicts often overdosed and died in the parks.

Police responded with repression. But it never worked – dealers and users just moved on to the next park. As HIV/AIDS began to spread rapidly through the intravenous drug using population it became clear that something needed to be done.

In 1994, Switzerland became one of the first countries to experiment with heroin-assisted treatment for hardened addicts. Other measures, such as supervised injection rooms, were introduced as part of a new emphasis on harm reduction.

Many Swiss opiate users receive methadone treatment. However, heavy users who have tried and consistently failed on methadone programs and have health problems associated with their drug use qualify for state-administered heroin.

In 2010, 1,370 patients across Switzerland received heroin treatment, which is administered from 21 centres as well as two prisons. Giving heroin to addicts might seem like a controversial and politically unpopular but the measure was approved in a public referendum, in 1999.

In Switzerland it was obvious that ‘simple solutions wouldn’t work’, says Professor Daniel Kübler, a drugs policy analyst at the University of Zurich. Now, after almost twenty years, the country has ‘a solution that is quite differentiated, at different levels, and at different moments in an addiction that helps to manage a complex problem’.

‘Single measures might look contradictory on their own but looked at the whole it makes sense,’ says Prof Kübler.

Tony Geoghegan, director of Merchant’s Quay, thinks Ireland could learn from countries that have taken a more nuanced approach to drug treatment. ‘We have adopted a one size fits all approach, says Geoghegan. ‘(But) methadone isn’t going to suit everyone and that type of approach isn’t going to fit everyone.’

Geoghegan says that more needs to be done to break down attitudes towards drug use and to improve treatment across Ireland.

‘Zero tolerance sounds good and is very popular but it doesn’t really work,’ Geoghegan says. ‘It makes more sense to address the underlying issues, and to invest in skills and training (for users).

‘We need a greater emphasis on drugs as a health and a social problem rather than a law and order issue. It costs about €70,000 a year to keep someone in prison. If drugs are the root cause of someone committing a crime, then not to address that is crazy.’

Book Review: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie.

‘Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see,’ Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie cautions, midway through this delicate, thoughtful collection of essays. ‘That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.’

Jamie, an acclaimed poet and essayist, has made attentiveness her mantra. Having trained herself to observe the mundane, Jamie is adroitly placed to bear witness to the wonder: Leach’s petrels swooping over Rona, a blustery, long uninhabited isle 40 miles off the Scottish mainland, or a fibreglass whale jawbone that sits 600-metre high atop Berwick Law, on Edinburgh’s picturesque purlieus.

Sightlines, like her previous collection, 2005’s Findings, comprises a series of carefully constructed essays on the living world. Findings was a remarkable book, and one that defied categorisation: does a Scot writing about winter on Orkney or corncrakes on a Hebridian island constitute travel writing? Nature writing? Memoir? All three? Sightlines retains its predecessor’s unusual shape and structure: there are knowledgeable essays about the whale rooms in Bergen’s Natural History Museum and orca spotting off Shetland, all accompanied by artful black and white photographs.

But Sightlines is an altogether more self-conscious work than its antecedent, aware that it is, in a more definite sense, nature writing. Jamie is also more self-consciously a nature writer. The two opening essays – the weakest in this short collection – find the writer among icebergs off Greenland and shadowing a pathologist in Scotland, respectively. The word nature, and what this slippery term, means is a recurring concern in these early essays. Nature, says Jamie, is ‘not all primroses and otters’; pinning down what exactly it is proves more difficult.

‘The Woman in the Field’, an essay, largely, about a teenage summer spent as a ‘digger’ at an archaeological site, finds Jamie on safer, more revealing ground. Personal, observant and occasionally darkly funny, as when she describes the unwanted attention of ‘Pete the Lech, a patchouli scented, lank-haired hippy, lustily hopping from dig to dig in the late 1970s.

Like Seamus Heaney, Jamie sees a symbiosis between archaeology and poetry, a shared unearthing what others would rather left alone: ‘The opening of the cist under that thunderclap was thrilling, transgressive. So, in its quiet way, was writing poems’. Until Findings, Jamie was best known as a poet and, at times, her spartan, evocative prose could easily pass as poetry. School children filing past the whale room in Bergen are ‘a quick bright shoal darting through’. Stringy sinews from a patient’s liver, ‘reminded me of climbers’ gear abandoned on a rock-face.’

Jamie has said in interviews that British nature writing ‘vanished’ in the 1960s, but in its themes and approaches Sightlines often calls to mind the work of Richard Mabey, the septuagenarian naturalist and author. Both share a strong, almost elegiac, environmentalism that goes beyond conservation into a concern about the future of the planet.

Written in the first person, with a great deal of reflexivity, ‘nature’ is never conceived of as something ‘other’, something ‘wild’ or ‘remote’ – indeed the very notion of the remote is thrillingly deconstructed in a brilliant, searingly honest essay on St Kilda, a rugged island in the Atlantic abandoned by its population in 1930, which has since become a poster child for the unkempt wilderness.

There is a pleasing domesticity to Jamie’s writing, too. Half a short essay-cum-prose poem on the lunar eclipse is spent coaxing her teenage children to look out the window; refurbishing whale bones in Bergen is like ‘spring cleaning your bedroom’.

As in Peter Davidson’s Idea of North, the chimerical north is a constant presence in Jamie’s writing, and her travels: Iceland, Greenland, the Shetlands, the Hebrides all recur. That such places, ‘with such long human histories’, are ‘remote’ is balefully rejected. ‘Remote from what? London?’ Sightlines is of a piece with the recent social and cultural recalibration of Scotland, away from the south and towards the north and Scandinavia in particular, a move that, for many, necessitates political independence, too.

But Jamie’s politics is a far more personal affair. It is a call to arms to watch the world around you, to never forget that non-humans have as much right to the earth as we do, if not more. Sightlines forces you to think anew about your surroundings, to study them with fresh eyes, to take nothing for granted. For that alone, it is well worth reading.

Book Review: David Harvey – Rebel Cities

Last January 25, over 50,000 people occupied in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, in protest at the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Less than a week later, the number of protestors in the square and surrounding streets had swelled to more than one million. On February 11, Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt.

On May 15, thousands took to the streets of Madrid and Barcelona to campaign against corruption, bank bailouts and a proposed law restricting internet access. As in Cairo, the demonstrators were mainly young, well-educated and under-employed. Within two days ‘indignados’ had appropriated over 30 public spaces cities and towns across Spain, in a wave of occupations that was to inspire similar movements everywhere from Wall Street and Oakland to Dame Street and Lagos.

‘There is something political in the city air struggling to be expressed’, David Harvey notes midway through this thoughtful, prescient collection of his recent essays and articles. Harvey, a British Marxist geographer based at the City University of New York, has spent a lifetime interrogating the nexus between capitalism and urbanism.

Rebel Cities sees Harvey bring the full force of his analytical mind to bear on the question of just what this inchoate ‘something’ might be, and why it is emerging most prominently in cities.

The slight collection is framed by Harvey’s twin interests in the urban: cities are pivotal sites for capital accumulation and investment, but yet are also, and increasingly so, the location of social and political struggles. This loose division of intellectual labour – between capital accumulation and class struggle – frames the book’s two halves. In the opening chapters (leaning heavily on his theoretical lodestars Karl Marx and French social theorist Henri Lefebrve) Harvey outlines why cities are so important for capitalism. The latter sections are devoted to identifying why cities often make the ideal incubators for ferment and, ultimately, rebellion against the status quo.

Harvey is a committed Marxist who was never seduced by New Labour and Anthony Giddens’ Third Way. From his 1973 work Social Justice and the City to 2010’s The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, Harvey has consistently exhibited a flexibility and innovation of thought conspicuous by its absence among many of his contemporaries, inside and outside the academy.

Indeed he is one of the few writers on economics to emerge with his reputation enhanced by the global meltdown. Commenting on the proliferation of mortgage debt in the United States in his 2003 work The New Imperialism, Harvey wrote, ‘what happens if and when this property bubble bursts is a matter for serious concern’.

In Rebel Cities, Harvey’s central tenet is that cities are integral to capitalism: it is only by construction and ‘creative destruction’ in urban centres that surpluses can be profitably deployed. Urbanisation solves – or at least appears to solve – the problem of over-accumulation. Constructing, say, airports or apartment blocks delays a crisis of over-accumulation by putting immediate surpluses to use and shifting returns into the future, in the form of expected profits.

It doesn’t take a distinguished scholar to appreciate the dangers of this ploy. As more and more ‘fictitious capital’ is submerged into speculative activity, the threat of an even greater crisis of over-accumulation grows: ‘Speculatively, the asset markets constituted by housing and land have a Ponzi character without a Bernie Madoff at the top.’

When the emperor is revealed to be naked all along – as in Ireland after the 2008 credit crunch – house values plummet amid rampant over-supply and crisis ensues.

The deepest economic crisis for 80 years has created the material conditions for urban tumult on a scale unparalleled in living memory. Meanwhile, the organized left, from trade unions to political parties, has struggled to articulate a creative route out of this impasse for the growing legion of jobless graduates and the unemployed.

One reason for this, as Harvey recognizes, is that an insecure, low paid workforce that is disorganized and predominantly urban has largely usurped the traditional industrial ‘proletariat’. Think of the twenty-somethings with their laptops camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York. This new ‘precariat’ have little time for hierarchical politics, but are forming new alliances around issues as diverse as working conditions and the environment.

Written in terse, economical prose, Rebel Cities is a readable (and timely) introduction to the work of one of the world’s most influential social thinkers. While the chapters on urbanization and monopoly rent had this reviewer reaching for his dusty copies of Marx’s Capital, anyone who has ever wondered why cities look increasingly similar will find the discussions on the role of cultural producers in, often unwittingly, aiding the homogenization of urban space engrossing.

Harvey acknowledges that ‘what we academics so often forget is the role played by the sensibility that arises out of the streets around us.’ It is an omission that Rebel Cities goes a long way to addressing.

This book review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.

Will Titanic Quarter Sink?

The Titanic Quarter in Belfast was meant to signal the rebirth of the city, but a downturn in the property market has raised fears about its viability, writes Peter Geoghegan.

The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, a century ago today, but in Belfast the ship’s memory is more alive now than it has ever been. On High Street, Titanic tour buses jostle for space. Around the corner, on Little Donegall Street, the newly minted Titanic Bar has replaced a dilapidated snooker hall. Titanic gimcrack, everything from t-shirts to chocolate, abounds in city centre gift shops.

The main attraction for maritime buffs and curious locals alike is Titanic Belfast, a £97 million ‘experience’ built in the shadow of the slipway on which the ship was launched into Belfast Lough on May 31 1911. Constructed by Todd Architects, working to a design by internationally renowned architect Eric Kuhne, the shimmering structure is a startling addition to the Belfast skyline.

The 125ft tall, glistening silver shell of Titanic Belfast consciously references the prows of four ocean-liners, the logo of White Star Line, the company which commissioned the ship, and, most surprisingly, the ice-berg on which the ill-fated vessel ran aground so fatefully.

Inside, original photographs, CGI animation, 3D imagery and a suspension ride through a mock-up of the Harland and Wolff shipyards tell the tale of the Titanic from its construction in then boomtown Belfast to its eventual demise. ‘Titanic Belfast is iconic not just in its design but in the story that it tells,’ Tim Husbands, CEO of Titanic Belfast Limited told the Sunday Business Post.

For decades after 1912, the Titanic was a source of shame for many in the shipyards and across Northern Ireland, seldom talked about and certainly never celebrated. ‘It was only when Dr (Robert) Ballard filmed the wreck in 1985 and then Mr Cameron made his movie (Titanic) that we had the confidence to do something like this,’ said Mr Husbands.

Titanic Belfast is the centre point of Titanic Quarter, a public-private development on a 184-acre site about a mile east of Belfast city centre. Formerly known as Queens Island, it was here that Belfast’s famous shipyards were located – Samson and Goliath, the iconic yellow Harland and Wolff cranes, still tower over the site.

Since 2005, Titanic Quarter Limited has been joint owned by Pat Doherty’s Harcourt Developments and financier Dermot Desmond, with land provided by site owners Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Ambitious plans for the Titanic Quality development have been stalled by the downturn in the Northern Irish housing market, but a number of apartment complexes have been built as well as a Premier Inn hotel, which opened in 2010. Belfast Metropolitan College, with over 17,000 students, and the Northern Ireland Public Records Office are based in Titanic Quarter too.

‘We think Titanic Quarter has the potential to pull people into Belfast to give them a reason to come to Belfast,’ said Michael Graham, Director of Corporate Real Estate, Titanic Quarter Limited.

Speaking from the renovated Edwardian director’s dining room of Harland and Wolff, which has become the headquarters of Titanic Quarter Limited, Graham outlined a dramatic vision for a sprawling site that remains largely brownfield. ‘It’ll take a little while but the overall cost of the project could be anything up to £8-£10 bn,’ he said.

A vast, scale model of the Titanic Quarter, featuring yet to be constructed waterfront hotels, business parks and residential buildings, dominates the ground floor of the company’s headquarters. For Graham, Titanic Quarter is a 100-year plan for the former shipyards, which were themselves built on land reclaimed from Belfast Lough in the 1830s.

Central to this vision of a new city on the banks of Belfast Lough is Eric Kuhne’s plans for a series of radial ‘villages’, comprised of apartment blocks interspersed with green spaces. ‘Ultimately we envisage around 30,000 people living here and around 25,000-30,000 working in the area,’ commented Michael Graham.

However, the Titanic Quarter development has struggled. Although most of the 600 or so apartments already built were sold off the plans, Northern Ireland’s housing market contraction means many properties currently lie empty. A string of retail premises on the site are completely empty, save for a single coffee shop.

The hope now is that Titanic Belfast will give the area a new impetus. Tim Husbands, CEO of Titanic Belfast, estimates that 600 jobs were created during the construction of the building and that the centre will provide 250 permanent jobs.

It is proving a popular attraction: Titanic Belfast has been sold out since it opened, with Mr Husbands estimating that 20,000 people visited in the first week alone. ‘Demand has been huge, we have had people coming from all over the world,’ he said.

Mr Husbands anticipates Titanic Belfast receiving 450,000 visitors this year. But doubts remain about the long-term viability of a centre with such a specific purpose and, at £13.50 for an adult, a high entry price.

A report published in December by the Northern Ireland Audit described the long-term future of Titanic Belfast as ‘doubtful’ and expressed concern that the 290,000 visitors needed every year to break even would not materalise. The report, which also drew attention to the exclusive development rights enjoyed by Titanic Quarter Limited in Titanic Quarter, concluded that: ‘Compared to other world class attractions, the Titanic Signature Building will be one of the most expensive relative to the number of visitors it expects to attract.’

Titanic Belfast was built with £60million of public funds. Mark Hackett, co-director of Forum for Alternative Belfast (FAB), is concerned that Titanic Quarter will become a ‘parallel city’, with Belfast’s less affluent residents effectively excluded. ‘More and more we’ve seen the division between rich and poor as the new division in Belfast,’ said Mr Hackett, one of the lead architects behind the newly MAC arts centre in the Cathedral Quarter.

Along with many conservation groups, Mr Hackett questioned the raising of the Titanic Quarter site in the early years of the millennium, which took place before development began. ‘We could have used the old buildings, fixed them, involved new objects to make an incredible post-industrial expo/conference centre/museum. But we didn’t do that,’ he said.

Glenn Patterson, one of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated novelists and an aficionado of Belfast history, is more circumspect about the new development: ‘As a building, Titanic Belfast is a very interesting addition to the cityscape. You can no more be against it than you can be against the weather. You can only take about it.’

Patterson’s latest novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, is set in Belfast in 1831, at a time when the act to create the Victoria Channel was going through parliament. The channel, designed to improve access for ships to Belfast Port, created Queens Island, which was a public park before becoming home to arguably the world’s most famous shipyards.

According to Patterson, the unintended effect of dredging the Victoria Chanel – the creation of the shipbuilding industry – deftly demonstrates that ‘you don’t know what the consequences of something are going to be’. It’s a maxim that could be applied to Titanic Quarter today.

‘We don’t what the effect of all this redevelopment is going to be. The interesting question is “what will the effect of all this be in 100 years time”?’

This article appeared in the Sunday Business Post, April 15.