14 January 1999 Edition

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Sinn Fein force closure of Castlecourt RUC barracks

by Eoin O'Broin

After a month of sustained campaigning, Belfast Sinn Fein successfully closed the RUC `information shop' in the city's Castlecourt shopping centre. On Friday 8 January, the RUC announced that the barracks would close. Sinn Fein Councillor for West Belfast Chrissie McAuley proclaimed the closure as a victory for the entire nationalist community. She slammed the `cheap PR stunt' as a `complete failure' and commended the work of the campaigners.

The `information shop' opened in the run-up to Christmas. While the idea came from the RUC, Castlecourt managers told Sinn Fein that it was a response to rising levels of crime in the city centre, and that the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce has called on the RUC to increase their presence in the shopping district.

During a meeting with the Castlecourt management group on 16 December, Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly told Alex Bell of the centre's management that the city centre was already at saturation point, with barracks in Musgrave Street, Queen Street and North Queen Street. In fact, large parts of the Castlecourt shopping centre are closer to Queen Street barracks than the `information shop'.

A series of protests were held to highlight the unaccepctability of the new barracks. On a number of occasions protesters were attacked, and two arrests were made at separate events during December. As each protest went by, the violent actions of the RUC provided ample evidence to all present that they must be disbanded.

Equally, the RUC mismanagement of the situation and the resulting confrontations convinced the Castlecourt management group that the `information shop' was not in their commercial interests. A decision was taken on Thursday 7 December not to grant the RUC an extension to their four week temporary lease.

While the RUC attempted a damage limitation exercise the following day, proclaiming the barracks as a success, its closure was a clear signal of the strength of nationalist opinion set against the RUC.

Speaking after the news, Assembly member Gerry Kelly said that ``this short protest shows what can be achieved by grassroots campaigning. protests. Pickets combined with concerted lobbying can achieve results, and the closure of the Castlecourt barracks is just a small example of the potential which exists.''

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