Members and supporters of People Before Profit visited Regina Coeli House in West Belfast after attending the Trade Union Freedom Bill rally on Tuesday. We spoke with Sonia who works there and with five others is continuing the occupation by the workers.
Regina Coeli (pronounced CHEY-lee) House is a women’s hostel. It welcomes women referred the Housing Executive and other groups like Women’s Aid, with issues as various as psychosis, addiction abuse. There is space for 21 residents. The staff (all sacked as of last week) included everyone needed for the facility including a chef.
The Legion of Mary operated the facility but decided to stop the providing the service on the grounds that the building had been deemed ‘not fit for purpose’ in a report they’d commissioned. The report of the inspection has not been made available to the workers or their trade union. Despite the rumoured report and sackings the occupation continues.
This report is contested and the facility is still in use for one remaining resident. The workers continue occupying the Regina Coeli House. Sonia says another survey has been carried out. This second survey she says reports the building is sound and in need of minor repairs: nothing that would warrant a closure of the house or the service which has been used by so many women in need over the years.
Is there was another women’s refuge in West Belfast? ‘No.’
Anywhere in Antrim? ‘Nothing.’
Anywhere in the north? ‘No. No “women’s only” facilities at all.’
Closing Regina Coeli House without an alternative is reckless. The bravery and commitment of the workers behind this vital service show once again it is workers who keep society going as if we needed a reminder since the pandemic. The workers themselves – not the charity grandees – are occupying their workplace.
Despite the reports and dismissals the workers and their union are fighting to keep this resource open and available to the people. The campaign is not just very popular locally. The occupation draws comparisons with the Debenhams pickets in trade union meetings around Ireland and stands as an example for campaigners for 500 women’s refuge places in the ‘9 Counties No Refuge’ campaign in the south protesting this weekend at 11am on OConnell St and joining the #NoWomanLeftBehind Rally on Saturday. Their fight is exemplary and unifying and it is rightly receiving wide support from across the city and the island.
‘So what’s the desired outcome?’ one of the visitors asked. ‘Keep it open! Keep it running!’ Sonia laughed.
If only charities had the commitment the workers have. Stable government funding through the Department of Communities is the solution that the workers’ union Unite have shown as a clear practical solution.
Legion of Mary has shamed itself publicly in multiple ways in the Regina Coeli House closure and occupation: deceiving the union and sacking workers last week just before they were eligible for a ‘meagre redundancy’ (most would have received less than £1000), the techniques used to make the occupation more difficult, the closure without provision to the residents of an equal alternative, the years-long ongoing low-pay and underfunding. Their ‘ethos’ is in tatters. Money seems the only focus and speculation is rife that this closure will be profitable, however embarrassing to the ‘Legion of Mary’ brand. The Frank Duff-founded organisation is said to be losing more and more members as the hypocrisy becomes more difficult for supporters and members to explain away to friends and family.
We asked if the charity’s members and donors should abandon it altogether. ‘No.’ Sonia said, ‘The issue is the management committee. Stay. Don’t quit. Get them out.’
The question remains why vital community services like this are left to charities and not the state who can provide these services sustainably and democratically. People Before Profit stands with the workers and sends full solidarity from across Ireland to the workers as their occupation enters its 50th day.
We encourage all our members and supporters to stand with the Regina Coeli House workers at Belfast City Hall today at 5:30pm. Contact Gerry Carroll MLA or Cllr Fiona Ferguson for details. See https://www.facebook.com/events/924420371580847.