The Story of Warzone Collective

Warzone Collective began in 1984 when a few Belfast DIY punx inspired by the Crass peace-punk era and anarchist tradition decided to pool their efforts, seize the times and get their own venue, practice rooms and social space. By 1986 the Collective opened its first premises in Belfast which provided a vegetarian/vegan café/drop-in centre (Giro’s, named after welfare girocheques distributed to the poor), practice and office space for bands, venue and screen printing workshop. It developed organically along DIY guidelines and soon became a focal point for alternative culture in the city. In 1991 the Warzone Collective moved to a larger and more ambitious space. Over the years thousands of people passed through the doors and were exposed to new ideas centred around the ethos of DIY & Autonomy, so it became the counter-cultural hub for the greater Belfast area and beyond. Towards the end of 2003 the Warzone Centre closed for a number of different reasons but it left a gap in radical Belfast culture. In 2007 discussions began and eventually in 2009 the Collective reformed and by 2011 a new centre was opened once again. Where it goes from here depends on all those who get involved. Warzone Collective is everyone who helps! To book an event in the new Warzone Centre please contact warzonegigcollective@riseup.net and for more info visit their website and facebook page.

As part of our efforts to put some great interviews and articles from printed zines onto the internet, you could now read this awesome talk with the famous Petesy (Stalag 17, FUAL, A Political, etc.) and the zinester Danny (back2front) about Warzone Collective and their dedication to DIY counter culture in Belfast. The interview was conducted in 2009 by Sean (Protest Zine) and published in the split issue of Protest Zine & D-beat Beater zine.

I’m including the original intro by Protest Zine.

Warzone collective group, Giros, venue, Warzone Tapes, food co-op, recording studio, veggie café, rehearsal, meeting and screen printing rooms. That’s some undertaking by a group of people, all done under the Warzone banner.

Founded in the 80s in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There is many memories I’m sure in the old building in Donegal lane.Which for many years so alive with the real culture of people. Similar centers exist like ABC No Rio in New York and 1 in 12 Club in Bradford, UK. Of course not forgetting autonomous spaces closer to home such as the Cork Autonomous Zone and Seomra Spraoi in Dublin.

I used to write to Warzone Tapes in eighties for various demos and live recordings. To me living in a small city on the other side of the island, it was very inspirational. Mainly I was in contact with Alistair who I met years later when a band I was in, played a few gigs with FUAL, who he was playing bass for. Strange meeting people who you assume will be overtly political in everything they say, or just punker than punk. And you meet them and they are having a laugh like everyone else! I still remember the first time I went to Giros. ’91 maybe, I’d never seen anything like it before. I’d read all the zines, heard the bands coming to the city. So it was a great thrill to finally arrive, to meet a hung-over Petesy from Stalag 17, FUAL, Amadan, etc. And finding everyone so friendly. Years later it became an annual trip to the Warzone punk festival. Which was always top notch, with folks coming from all over. It eventually closed its doors in 2003. Now they are planning to bring it back to life. This interview is with collective members Danny (who also does Back2Front zine) and Petesy who now plays in Shame Academy and A Political.

The age old questions, can you give me a brief history of Warzone, how and why it was founded? (Further info see “Makes You Want to Spit” Reekus Books)

Petesy: The collective had its roots in the Just Books building in Belfast around 1983/84. The building was home to the Belfast Anarchist Collective and housed a bookshop, café and print workshop. A few of us got involved running the café. It was a good focal point for our social and political activities of the time and encouraged us to get serious about getting our own place. We got together because we shared the view that Belfast was a shit hole for most, but particularly so if you didn’t fit into the sectarian farce. Punk had always been a unifying factor but we wanted to go beyond that and create a space where people could truly work together and create something out of a seemingly hopeless situation. There wasn’t a time where we sat down and said “Right, now we’re the Warzone Collective.” We’d been sharing gigs, gear and venues for years, so the collective ethos was an unwritten agreement. Warzone just took it a stage further and tried to make the collective approach more cohesive and fruitful.

Danny: The first centre was obtained through continually hassling Belfast Unemployed Centre for some space in 1986. It was a real do-it-yourself-all-along sort of thing but had a strong DIY ethic that was really very contagious and inspirational in a number of ways. In Belfast in those days there weren’t any openly non-sectarian venues in the city but the feeling of being made welcome that it created touched many and as I said was inspiration and catalyst for many other activities. I started my first zine shortly afterwards for example and have been annoying people ever since. A second building was acquired around 1991, bigger and more adventurous, though I wasn’t involved in that due to my activities with the Fleskwater Collective (an autonomous rural collective based on self-reliance with minimal environmental impact). The centre was closed in 2003 and went into trust.

Warzone must have been a great spot for teenagers just discovering radical politics and DIY punk/hardcore music. And I would imagine it changed some peoples outlook/place in life. How did all come to an end? Was it mainly a lack of volunteers and funding (10 years lease being up)?

Petesy: When you talk of Warzone I take it you’re referring to Giro’s. It was a great spot for any-agers! But aye, a lot of the young ones coming down to the place for the first time were blown away. The first premises were small and very manageable and we didn’t really give much of a fuck about entertainment licenses or the like. There was a great sense of freedom and spontaneity about the place that was infectious. Youth provision in Belfast at the time was by and large restricted to dingy clubs in dingy areas where you were expected to be happy with playing pool or table tennis, watching TV and being a good little boy/girl. We just provided the gear and said “Get on it.” It wasn’t a free for all but it was pretty damn close to one. Of course, teenagers being teenagers, we got a lot of hassle and were accused of all sorts of Stalinist behaviour when we wouldn’t let people swing off the light bulbs and party 24/7. But that was all part of the entertainment. Our second premises never quite lived up to the original place. Yes, we were able to do a lot more and involve a hell of a lot more people…

I suppose for those who had never witnessed the first Giro’s it was still a great place (and it was!) I was also however a fairly heavy weight of responsibility on those running it. When we were coming to the end of our 12 years lease most of us decided that it was time to move on. We’d hoped that others might get involved and carry on where we left off but there was no coherent momentum coming from anywhere, so we just decided to call it a day. Another factor was that it was becoming increasingly difficult to be on the dole doing voluntary work (we were a completely voluntary group) and not get a load of shite about looking for a “real” job. So in effect of our volunteer pool dwindled. Of course now we all know the wisdom of these state policies which forced people into meaningless schemes to bolster the economy and train a cheap labour force for the opulent times ahead!

Danny: For some it was an epiphany, a turning point at their lives and I’ll include myself here as it encouraged, and gave focus to, the possibilities of the individual on one level but also the potential of organizing by mutual aid in true anarchist tradition. There was all sorts going on: Anarchist Black Cross (esp. Martin Foran / Paddy Murphy campaigns), Hunt Saboteurs and animal rights activities, Gay & Lesbian poetry /folk nights which were really open and attracted a very broad spectrum of people, zines, poster campaigns, screen-printing, vegetarian café/drop-in, the Belfast Musicians Collective providing practice space and recording facilities as well as a place for other radical and diverse groups to meet and organise. It became the central hub for radical Belfast. For young people (and some older ones too) seeing and getting involved in all of it was indescribably positive especially against the background of sectarian war and the particularly ugly breeds of bastard nationalism we have here which had and continue to have absolutely fuck all to offer anyone anywhere!!!

To run a center like yours there must be a lot of legal negotiation. Is it tough to keep track with different people coming through the collective all the time? Or is it a few of the main ones always involved in the legal/lease holding side of things?

Petesy: Too fucking right. People don’t realise just what a pain in the arse it is. There’s very little glory in being a pen pusher and jumping through bureaucratic hoops, which by their very nature get smaller and smaller. When it comes to shit like that there certainly aren’t too many people beating down your door to help out. But, we managed. Very few people just upped and left without dispensing of their responsibilities and handing stuff on to others. It takes a certain type of person to deal with the day to day running of such an ambitious project and luckily we were blessed with enough of them to sustain us for 17 years.

How did local businesses and community react towards the center?

Petesy: Cold, lukewarm and warm depending on who you talk to. Within a few months of being in the second premises we managed to piss of the local “business resident committee” to the point that they never darkened our door again. Some of the businesses thought we were low-lifes, some again just thought we were weird but tolerable (only just mind you) while others thought we were class. There was no local community as we were in the city centre. The nearest community would have used the street we were on as a shortcut from the town centre to their turf. We’d a few run-ins now and again with gaggles of brain donors but no more than you’d expect in any place with bunches of ne’er-do-wells frequenting it!

So how come after all this time have you decided to get it back up and running again? And what’s going on at present? Do you have a contact if someone wants to donate millions of pounds to you?

Petesy: Well, I’d hazard a guess that what ever gets up and running won’t be “it”. Giro’s was off its time. The growth and development of it were governed by the politics of the time and the place we all were in our lives. It’s a great memory to have and it was an amazing achievement but to try to recreate it would be, in my mind, futile. If anything comes out of the present momentum for a new centre in Belfast the most difficult thing might be trying not to continue on from where Giro’s left off. By all means it would be great to emulate the collective ethos and provide a place people felt a sense  of ownership from. But it’s not 1986 (or for that matter 1991) and more (thanks fuck!) So over to Danny for what’s going on… If someone wants to donate millions of pounds I’m sure we would come up with a convenient location where they could discreetly drop it off.

Danny: A lot of people didn’t really realise what they’d had until it was gone. At the Giro’s closing down bash in 2003 I felt that I should have been more involved in trying to keep it open but I was rarely in Ireland at the time anyway so it was wishful thinking to an extent but I always had the idea of what might still be possible in the back of my head. In recent years with the Bush/Blair axis of lies having plunged international tensions to an all-time high and slaughtered around one million people in their overt bid to control resources such as oil, gas and water as supplies dwindle elsewhere you have to start asking furious questions. I mean modern capitalism in its endless lust for profit has also driven the climate to a precipice which could literally threaten our very existence and to me this is far more disturbing than the machinations of Thatcher and Reagan, the threat of nuclear war and the sectarian shit on my own streets which led me into struggle and anarchism in the first place 25 years ago. And now Cowen, Brown and all the other Euro hacks that lovingly lick the fetid arsehole of corporations and bankers have wrecked the economy to the extent that over one quarter of the world’s population is dispossessed and destitute. That’s more than 1 in 4 people! Tie into all of this the continual abuse of workers at home, animals and the environment, and you get a very ugly picture. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

We have created a spoon-fed society where the State does everything on behalf of every individual whether they like it or not, yet we are very capable of making decisions which affect us locally without having some cunt in a suit dictate what is best from afar. What this actually does is strip people of their dignity and their potential. It denies their talent and capability and is a major insult to our humanity. DIY is not just about putting up shelves; it’s not just about records and gigs, and punk rock; it’s about taking back control of every aspect of our lives.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1997 which was touted as an end to the Troubles here did take most of the guns off the streets but it also entrenched sectarian politics and cemented the cultural divide. So to come back to the question, these were the things that made me personally feel like getting organised. Since the last centre closed a few individuals have talked about getting something going again. Would you believe, for example, Belfast doesn’t have a vegetarian café, I mean a European capital city in the 21st Century? Add to that the fact that when you’re organizing gigs you’re at the mercy of crap bars, bouncers and expensive corporate drink but also there isn’t a space to provide an alternative hub to growing counter culture here.

I think it was towards the end of 2007 that we all started linking up again. Even Jimmy Segus was there too! Initially we talked about getting the Warzone label going again to bring some of the old bands into the digital age and to document the times but it began to spiral from there. We got in touch with Just Books who had been vital to in the early days and who were also looking for premises and decided to pool resources. Since then we’ve had several meetings and looked at several potential buildings. Recently the trust from the old centre has been dissolved and a new “committee” set up. We are acquiring a temporary office space and this will allow us to begin fund-raising again with the intention of acquiring new premises ASAP. But as Petesy says we are not trying to emulate the past but attempting to do something that’s relevant to the here and now. To that extent one of our major plans is that the new centre will be the city’s first low-carbon, off the grid building. It’s ambitious stuff but we are moving towards it and hopefully we can maintain the momentum.

Regarding the label, we’re working on a project with Crass as a split benefit and a numerous other ideas are going about such as putting out the back catalogue. Anyone who wants to get in touch can contact us at warzonecollective@riseup.net And of course anyone wanting to do benefits or donate their millions to is most welcome to do so, oh lordy…

Anything else you want to add…

Danny: I think I’ve ranted on long enough; I really should lay-off the marmite. Thanks for the space Sean and all the best with the zine. Oh, go on then I suppose may as well plug back2front zine if you insist – b2f is a hefty mag with tons to read from all over the place and some people say it’s good – details are available from back2front@riseup.net

Petesy: Aye. Will the real Jimmy Segus please stand up!

(Warzone Festival in Belast, 2013)

Mittens XVX

Positive person bringing a small fragment of warmth and light in a dark and cold world. Editor of Tigersuit Zine. Founder of DIY Conspiracy webzine. Contact him at: mitkoxvx@gmail.com