Occupying NAMA buildings isn’t just a gesture – it’s essential research

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This article was originally published in the journal.ie last night.

How many speculators does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is none. They still think the broken one works.

The business model of asset price speculation – the model that broke the world – informs the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA), and it is in opposition to it that 70 people occupied a building on Great Strand Street in Dublin last Saturday.

The group that organised the event is called Unlock NAMA, and it has set itself three main tasks: to make NAMA properties available for social and community use; to publish full addresses and details on all properties under NAMA; and to publish full details on all sales of NAMA assets.

The first objective happens to be the stated objective of NAMA as well.

The legislation which created the body states quite clearly that NAMA is required “to contribute to the social and economic development of the State.” The chairman of NAMA, Mr Brendan McDonagh, told the Dáil Public Accounts Committee in October 2011 that not only must NAMA meet certain financial objectives, it “must also meet certain social objectives” as well.

As for the details of the addresses of NAMA properties and sales, well, these are hardly contentious issues, are they?

But such is the legislation which surrounds NAMA that Unlock NAMA has to engage in acts of civil disobedience simply to uncover the paper trail. The tactic appeared to work last Saturday when the receiver was forced to come forward, and told the guards to remove the activists from the building.

Unlock NAMA left the building, but it left with a name. One small piece of the NAMA jigsaw, tucked safely in its pocket.

‘One enforced property down, 849 to go’

We know why NAMA is so reluctant to divulge details surrounding title ownership and sales. It is because a sizeable proportion of the loans in NAMA have incomplete paperwork surrounding them, and in some cases there is simply no paperwork at all. We know all of this because in its 2010 annual report NAMA told us that this was the case.

These dubious loans, for which the State paid €16.1 billion (56 per cent of NAMA debt), lie at the heart of NAMA, along with an undisclosed amount of derivative contracts. But with NAMA exempt from the Freedom of Information act, and with normal channels of research and disclosure blocked to the public, other ways of finding out the information are necessary.

The occupation last Saturday by Unlock NAMA was not only a move towards a more viable and creative city, it was an act of discovery at what actually lies within NAMA.

It’s going to be a long process, but it’s probably fair to say that NAMA will run out of names before the activists run out of buildings. One enforced property down, 849 to go. All to follow the paper trail, the opaque journey of €32 billion of taxpayers’ money, into the world of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.

I gave a talk at the event on Saturday, and I finished it with a quote from the gospel of St. Mark: “They shall lay their hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

The words had come into my head earlier that day as I watched the activists tidy the rooms, clean the floors, and wash the windows of a building which had been given the equivalent of tuberculosis by its owners over the years.

In the midst of all the destruction which has enveloped this world, where speculation drowns out viable business models of creation and reproduction, here were ordinary people who were laying their hands upon a sick building, and were doing so not in order to flip it for a buck, but in order to make it well again. Such beauty in action is rare these days. It is deserving of our respect.

Photo credit: Paul Reynolds.