Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Now is the time.....why it MUST go!

"You can stew in your own juice"
These were the words uttered by an RUC Sergent when Short Strand residents pleaded with them, through the door of Mountpottinger Barracks, to come out and assist them when the area came under attack during a Loyalist pogrom on the 27th June 1970

I have written several times before on this blog and have been fairly good at raising the issue of Mountpottinger Barracks in the media. When I do I am always mindful of the people who suffered so greatly at the hands of Mountpottinger and those inside. People like Tony Dawson who was shot dead in 1983, two years before I was born. Tony was shot and murder by a drunken RUC Officer leaving Mountpottinger Barracks, who opened fire on three young nationalists, sadly Tony was fatally wounded. Tony's sister Sue is a close family friend and neighbour, I pass her most days and wonder how the constant sight of this base makes her and her family feel. I also think of the notorious Loyalist, Albert 'Ginger' Baker, who met with his handlers inside Mountpottinger's grim walls and was supplied with intelligence and weapons from officers inside Mountpottinger.

For those of you who haven't heard, the Policing Board is meeting this Thursday to discuss the future status of a number of PSNI stations dotted across the Six Counties.

Included in this is the future status of Mountpottinger.

Sinn Féin has for the guts of twenty years been lobbying for the removal of Mountpottinger Barracks and its replacement with much needed social homes. When Sinn Féin selected me to represent this constituency on it's behalf I, along with a number of other comrades, made it one of our top areas of work, not just to continue with the long running campaign but to revitalise it as well.

We set about holding protests again, highlighting the desire of this community to see this blight on our area removed, however we were no longer content to do this in isolation, it was about getting down to the nitty gritty and actually articulating why this base had to go. I set about submitting a number of Freedom of Information requests into the PSNI seeking to find out

1. How much did it cost to retain Mountpottinger?
2. How many hours was it open?
3.How many people actually used it?

Even for those of us who knew it had lain idle for quite some time, the answers were still shocking. Not only was the Barracks used only to house a part time neighbourhood team, there was over £92,000 being spent on paying private security firms to sit in the place when these teams weren't there. Add this on top of the costs of rates, heat, electric etc etc and you had quite the bill for a barracks sitting in the middle of an area that was already being 'policed' from Strandtown station on the Hollywood Road.

At a public meeting of the Policing Board's community engagement committee I put these figures directly to the PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde, I asked him did he accept that this was a gross waste of police resources right in the heart of what is considered to be the ninth most socio-economically deprived electoral ward in the north of Ireland?

He agreed. He said it was a waste of money and even went so far as to say that his officers 'didn't want to work in places like Mountpottinger'.

In the meantime a consultation had re-opened into the future of of Mountpottinger, Sinn Fein gathered almost one thousand signatures from residents living under the shadow of Mountpottinger calling clearly for it's removal and replacement with Social Housing. Funny enough, we had to submit this petition into Strandtown Station on up the Hollywood Road. (see photo above of myself with Short Strand residents and community acitivsts Bernie Black and Jacquline O'Donnell, submitting the petition)

The East Belfast DPP held a meeting on this very issue in the Mount Conference Centre and it was clear from their presentation, that much like Hugh Orde, they too accepted that Mountpottinger was a massive drain on finance and on resources.

Short Strand residents, community activists as well as myself and other Sinn Féin members, made it clear at that meeting, that the Barracks served no purpose other than to act as a constant reminder of all that was wrong with Policing here in Ireland. It was now time to move on.

In doing media on this issue I have had to go up against opposing views on the closure of the Barracks, once with UUP leader Reg Empey but several times with DUP MLA for East Belfast, and now junior Minister Robin Newton. I asked several times what the exact reasons were why Robin Newton and the DUP wanted to retain this base, as yet publicly or privately i have received no answer. I put it directly to him that this his was the party who once proclaimed that they would 'put a ring of steel around the Short Strand'. I wondered did that mindset still exist within his party?

What intrigued me also was that I had saw and heard Robin Newton on countless occasion, given his role on the Assembly's Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, stand in the Assembly Chamber arguing his heart out for a more cost effective and sensible approach throughout government to spending and the issue of cost effectiveness. I couldn't then add up why he had a completely different view when presented with the cold, hard facts about Mountpottinger; no doubt on these occasion he was performing to a different gallery.

In all of this what cannot and must not be overlooked is the future need for community based and community orientated, effective, civic policing in East Belfast. Mountpottinger will go, there is no doubt about that, but what we must now do collectively is figure out how we utilise what is there to best combat the scourge of drugs, racism, intimidation, anti social activity, theft as well as all the other community safety issues facing us in the East of the city. Mountpottinger was never about doing that, it was designed and used for intimidation and repression.

Let's now look to the future, let's ensure that the legacy of Mountpottinger and everything that it stood for is consigned to the dustbin of history. Let's ensure that all citizens in this part of Belfast have a cost effective, efficient and civic policing service with the right strategies and the right tool to address the issue that effect us all.

I recently submitted another Freedom of Information request, seeking clarity on who exactly owns the land on which Mounpottinger Barracks is based; I am calling, once again, on the Department of Social Development to ensure that they obtain this land from the owners, the Policing Board itself, and urgently provide the much needed social homes for this community and it's people.

We have further work ahead but I am confident, like the people have stood together in securing the removal of this base, that they will once again stand together to ensure that the land, used against this community so cruelly will be gifted back to the people for the sustainment of this proud community.

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