The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Street Traders

Anthony McIntyre • 8/2/2003

The street traders of Belfast have for long added colour and character to a city centre otherwise as bland and as boring as many of the politicians planted in its heart in the City Hall. They may not have the legendary status of the street traders of Moore Street Dublin or Albert Cuyp Street in Amsterdam but Joe Kerr and those who ply their trade in our midst have made their mark and it is evident from those who call out to them as they do their business that they are popular with the public.

Just before Christmas I came across a friend standing at his stall just outside Primark. He was freezing and had his hands burrowed deep into the pockets of his coat. ‘You’ll have to take them out to give the punters change’ I commented to him. ‘Sure, every thing’s a pound so they can take what they want and throw their money on the stall’ he replied. As if to mock him, a customer bought two sheets of Christmas wrapping paper and gave him a twenty pound note. The hands came out of the pockets as quickly as a lizard’s tongue to claim his reward. ‘Have to live’ was his parting shot before turning to address another would be buyer.

Having to live by working on the streets is deep grained with some of Belfast’s stall holders. In Joe Kerr’s family the tradition of street trading runs back to 1968. How many times I wondered did his relatives have to grab what they could and run to escape one of the many bombs that blitzed the town for the most of the early 1970s? How frequently were those other occasions when they just stood there complacently and risked their lot due to being so used to the bomb warnings coming in only for the explosion never to materialise.

Today, the street traders still have to run but it is no longer to evade the bombs, but the batons of the RUC or PSNI, whatever you care to call them. Hugh Orde’s men and women, it seems, are prepared to adopt a zero tolerance policy towards street traders while ignoring others elsewhere visibly trading in hard drugs. I had earlier asked one of the street traders if any of their number would speak to The Blanket. He directed me to Joe Kerr, saying ‘Joe is a good speaker’. He was right about that, Joe was nobody’s fool. When I approached and asked him if he was willing to talk with us he gave me a quizzical look. I sheepishly produced a press card which left him even less impressed. His expression conveyed a feeling that the press were hardly going to take an interest in their plight. I explained that I was not ‘the press’ but would like to let them have their say. He agreed to talk.

Wearing a Street Traders Against Closure badge as he spoke with me, he described how his late father campaigned on behalf of street traders to be left alone. Now he was in a similar position. The traders, he stated, are desperately trying to secure licenses so that they can carry on with their business without fear of being hauled off to the cells and possibly given a ‘tanking’ by some ‘peeler’ eager to work off his frustrations on some shackled victim. He pointed out that a new Act had been given the government assent last April and was supposed to lead to the handing out of licenses by the 1st of October last. ‘But nothing happened and we are still waiting, still being hassled, still having our merchandise confiscated and still fearing the baton over the head if we do not move on quickly enough’.

To underline his point Joe referred to the previous Saturday when the RUC had attacked the street traders. Explaining how the force, not renowned for its record on human rights, had waded into the stall holders, Joe claimed:

this is not Ardoyne, the Short Strand or Garvaghy Road where this type of thing might appear a run of the mill every day event. It baffles me how Hugh Orde can send his men in here fully equipped with riot gear to beat street traders into the ground when he is complaining every other day if the week about not having enough resources to chase after the people he says are causing the biggest problems in this place at the minute. Imagine having the riot squads tear up and down Royal Avenue after a few street traders out doing a day’s work when there is so much else they could do. Makes you wonder what the priority really is.

Referring to the riot that had taken place after the cops had moved into aggressive mode Joe said ‘unfortunately it was started by guys who have never sought a license.’ This causes immense problems for the street traders. Up to now 70, 000 members of the public have signed the petition to back the traders.

When I put it to him that perhaps local representatives particularly at council level with experience of working class communities could lobby on behalf of the traders, Joe was hard pressed to conceal his contempt. He pointed out that politicians have been complaining that the traders have not been paying rent or rates. ‘We have been campaigning from the 1st of October 2002 to be allowed to pay the things. We will not stop campaigning until the most us get a license.’

He argued that DUP proposals on the matter were not put forward to help the traders but to make it more difficult for them. ‘They did not even want to speak to us. The DUP and the UUP were having a rattle against us.’ He spoke of approaching both parties on Lisburn Council. Gary McMichael of the then existing UDP came to see them but displayed a ‘nothing to do with me attitude.’ Sue Ramsey and Tom Hartley of Sinn Fein were also approached and their attitude seemingly was no different. Joe said he ‘pulled Hartley in a cry for help but got the brush off.’ His attitude to Sinn Fein was that ‘they have lost the passion that they used to have and that helped put them where they are today.’

A week or so later, by chance, I met Tom Hartley in the town and asked him how he felt about the claims of the street traders. He explained that the matter was effectively outside of the council’s hands and had been legislated for at a more senior level. I asked him had he brushed people off who went to seek his assistance. He looked at me as if he was weary but explained ‘you know I do the work on the ground and will listen to anybody who comes to me. But like everybody else in this city I don’t have to take abuse on the streets nor have claims thrown in my face that Bobby Sands died for nothing. Being civil in these things goes a long way.’ He seemed genuine about it and having watched him pound the streets in the rain trying to get people’s drains fixed nowhere near election time, I could not dispute his commitment to helping his community. And while I could never see eye to eye with him on political matters, I have always found him tolerant and willing to listen.

But my personal liking and respect for Tom Hartley aside clearly, the gap between those in elected office and the street traders remains considerable. Growing visibly angry at the sense of betrayal experienced from local politicians Joe Kerr hit out at what he felt was their cynicism:

We want the politicians to come forward and speak out on this matter. There have been occasions when I have raised this issue with some politicians only to be dismissed with a ‘we do not need your vote gibe’. Belfast city council have wasted about one million pound of the tax payers money in trying to clear us off the streets. The same tax payers are coming here and signing our petition and buying our stuff. Do they not have the sense to realise that they could save themselves that million quid and on top of that tax us and then put it into doing something useful for this city such as building better community services in the deprived areas. It is a class issue and that crowd down the street in the City Hall don’t give a damn.

Emphasising the theme of class Joe dismissed any suggestion that the matter could be viewed as either nationalist or unionist. ‘If we want to label it anything we can label it class.’ He was adamant that there is a concerted attempt being made by those who have the capital to drive working class people off the streets. ‘They tried to do the same thing in Dublin and parts of England - drive the traders off the streets. Traders protested in Glasgow city centre for two years to get a license. We will do the same if necessary.’

Throughout our exchange a steady flow of well wishers stopped to sign a petition perched on Joe’s stall. He turned at me as the customers began to gather in greater numbers. Deciding that he could not leave his female colleague to manage on her own he made his concluding comment:

You see the multinationals and their wealthy friends want to run this city, People come to us because they can get a wee bargain which they could never afford to pay for in the places owned by the multinationals. We provide a service to the people of this city and make a living at the same time. The multinationals make a killing, care nothing for their customers and are interested in profit. At the end of the day we keep money in this country for the betterment of the people who live here while the multinationals take it out.

I left Joe admiring the spark in his eyes. If others were as passionate about the issues of our day and were prepared to face those who wield batons in their desire to suppress social justice, inequality and poverty would be all the quicker confronted. Only a hundred yards away the politicians pigged out on a banquet. It may as well have been a hundred miles.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
- Thomas J. Watson

Index: Current Articles

9 February 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Orange Terror in America
Karen Lyden Cox


Street Traders
Anthony McIntyre


West Belfast: Memories of a childhood voyage of conflict
Davy Carlin


Planned Nationhood
Brian Mór


Breaking the Connection With England

Mary Ward


When I hear the word "gun", I reach for my culture

Jimmy Sands


Where Are The Incubators?
Paul de Rooij


6 February 2003


If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them
Breandán Ó Muirthile


The Spire
Anthony McIntyre


Brian Mór


The Holidays and Joyce
Sean OTorain


Life Story of the Olives
Annie Higgins


The Letters page has been updated.




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