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autumn 1999

HOUSING – The next front in Ulster's cold war?

BELFAST HAS become increasingly segregated over the past three decades. West Belfast, excluding the Shankill area, has become a contiguous Catholic area stretching from Castle Street to the edge of Lisburn. East Belfast, apart from Short Strand and Mountpottinger, is largely Protestant. There has also been some demographic change in favour of Catholics in south Belfast – for example the much disputed Lower Ormeau Road area was once largely Protestant - but the greatest pressure for rapid change is in North Belfast which is a patchwork of often hostile communities and 'interfaces'. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP in North Belfast regard the area as 'unfinished business' and openly covet land in loyalist Tiger's Bay, Torrens, Mountcollyer and Glenbryn. As SDLP councillor Martin Morgan sees it, 'The Catholic population could easily occupy every square inch of land in North Belfast.'

  "PROTESTANTS FAVOURED IN HOUSING SCANDAL" is the screaming headline in a very misleading article by the Sinn Féin-linked journalist, Ann Cadwallader, in Ireland on Sunday (August 8th, 1999). The article claims that working class Protestant areas in north Belfast are receiving unfair preferential treatment from the Housing Executive at the expense of more needy Catholic areas. Ms Cadwallader compares the  'long streets of decrepit "two-up, two-downs" houses' with 'no gardens, grass verges or trees' in the New Lodge area with nearby Tiger's Bay. There, 'rows upon rows of empty houses' and 'plenty of good, red-brick, newly-built homes lying empty in silent streets with few children despite open grassy spaces. Only a few flags and UDA graffiti signify that people live there.' Cadwallader goes on to claim that new homes are currently being built in Tiger's Bay despite low demand.

    This claim is totally false. No houses are under construction in Tiger's Bay. The Executive only built what new houses there are after a sustained campaign by residents who protested at official neglect. Large parts  of the area had fallen into disrepair and were neglected and ignored by the Executive. Eventually, after a six-year campaign around 65 new houses were built on vacant sites at the bottom of the Limestone Road and in Upper Mervue Street. However, this was only because the Executive found the money from compensation paid to it by the DoE after some 400 largely derelict Nineteenth Century houses (my own included) were bulldozed to make way for the Northgate project.

    Contrary to the impression given, new homes are being constructed in Catholic areas. The long streets in  the New Lodge, described by Ms Cadwallader, have been vested. Beautiful new homes are almost finished at the Hillman Street-North Queen Street junction. The decrepit "two-up, two-downs" will soon be gone.  Old  substandard 1960s maisonettes have been replaced by modern homes in nearby Carrick Hill.  New Lodge Housing Forum spokesman Joe Kelly wants more. 'Protestant areas are dying areas, they are moving out voluntarily, but unionist politicians see what's happening and are getting more and more new and better housing built to try and keep them here.'   

   This is a total inversion of what's actually happening. Official neglect led to younger economically active people moving away from areas such as Tiger's Bay and Mountcollyer. Only the elderly, the poor, the unemployed and those who had bought property and couldn't sell it remained in these decaying and crumbling areas. It wasn't unionist politicians who eventually succeeded in getting some new and better houses built but local community groups.  However, in all cases fewer houses were put back than had previously existed in these areas, not 'more and more' as Mr Kelly claims.  The people in these areas are as entitled to get rid of substandard accommodation as their counterparts in Carrick Hill and Divis Flats.

   It is also by no means the case that all these people moved out voluntarily! One row of empty houses pictured in the article is at the junction of Duncairn Gardens and Halliday's Road – a very volatile interface area where riots are a common occurrence. The same is true of the other end of Halliday's Road where it meets Limestone Road. I lived in the corner house – right on the interface. I lived behind wire grills and reinforced doors and regularly had to come in through the back gate to avoid the trouble at the front of the house. Riots were common. In July 1994, I even found a bomb on a neighbour's doorstep! I left that house in 1997, 'voluntarily' as Mr Kelly would see it. That house still stands empty today, as does the house targeted by would-be bombers six years ago.

CLICK TO ENLARGE.  A view from my caged in window in 1994.  A Citybus burns during disturbances at the interface junction of Limestone Road and Halliday's Road.   CLICK TO ENLARGE.  View from over my garden gate.  A Citybus burns at the Limestone Road interface.  CLICK TO ENLARGE.  Life behind steel grilles, heavy door bolts and a sealed letterbox.  A spokeman for the New Lodge Housing Forum claims that people like me left 'voluntarily'.

There is no doubt that Catholics need new houses in North Belfast but complaining that 'the Prods are getting everything' achieves nothing, especially when it is not true. Do Sinn Féin and the SDLP want the Executive to neglect loyalist areas so that everyone leaves 'voluntarily' thus allowing the vacated houses to be occupied by Catholics? Ironically, this is exactly what many loyalist critics have accused the Executive of planning over the past twenty years! Perhaps they should be honest and state that they really want to drive the remaining Huns out and in Cllr Morgan's words, 'occupy every square inch' of North Belfast.

David Kerr


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