Inequalities in access to social housing is perpetuating the divide between Catholics and Protestants
Source: Niall Carson / PA Archive / PA Images
In 1968, Nationalist Party MP Austin Currie borrowed a poker from his neighbour Mrs McKenna and, with two companions, broke the back window and occupied the empty home that had been allocated to an unmarried Protestant woman, in protest at the eviction of a Catholic family from a neighbouring home. This sit-in protest was seen as a precursor to two civil rights marches: one in Dungannon, and one in Derry. The former was non-violent, but the latter saw the Royal Ulster Constabulary attacking protesters with batons and water cannons, in a clash that is viewed as the starting point of the decades-long conflict that followed.
Housing in Northern Ireland has a long political history and had a considerable impact on the civil rights protests that marked the start of the Troubles. Unionist-run councils were perceived as allocating unfairly, favouring Protestant tenants over Catholic families; as voting rights were tied to property ownership, allocating homes to those more likely to vote for unionists left Catholic families and nationalists with no voting rights. This furthered gerrymandered constituencies, denying people representation in a purported democracy.
‘People of all backgrounds in Northern Ireland need homes. Dinosaurs of the past relish division but housing can help to prevent tribalism if it’s delivered equitably and promotes the safety of everyone involved’
The fallout from the Troubles saw so-called ‘peace lines’ – vast, fortified concrete walls topped with wire mesh – dividing neighbourhoods to prevent physical conflict; a dark, physical barrier to cross-community integration and a psychological reminder of the conflict. The Northern Ireland Assembly had committed to remove all peace lines by 2023, but the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in 2017 and failure to reach an agreement to resume power sharing makes that deadline moot and the prospect of the removal of the walls distant. Yet even the provision of new housing in Northern Ireland remains unequal and riven with political disagreements and conflicts.
In northern Belfast in 2017, a group of campaigners lobbied the council to block a planning application that handed land to developers for commercial use. The families, all homeless or in unsuitable accommodation, asked the council to approve the land for social housing. Despite a pressing need for housing in that area, the developers were granted the land: this is all the more galling considering the history in the immediate area. Between 2002 and 2007, £1.1m was wasted by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, buying land in Protestant areas of northern Belfast, where only 38 homes were needed, rather than the neighbouring Catholic areas, where 938 homes were needed.
The disparities between housing rights persist for many people despite housing campaigners pushing for equal opportunity for all, irrespective of religious background, voting tendency or nationality. The waiting lists for social housing remain starkly unequal. Catholics wait 28 months for social housing in Belfast West, while Protestants wait, on average, little over a year. Excuses for the disparity often blame a shortage of land in Belfast West, which is more built up – however, the Catholic population is growing due to a higher birth rate, while its Protestant counterpart is falling due to a slow move out towards commuter towns.
Apologists for the lack of progress argue that Catholics refuse to move out of their historic geographic communities. When families do, however, they are often not properly supported: in 2017 in Cantrell Close, a mixed development in south Belfast, Catholic families were subject to threats and intimidating graffiti and flags hung from lampposts. The police eventually told the families to flee as they could not guarantee their safety from the threats against their life.
Tribal objections to new housing are also a persistent problem: the Orange Order recently complained that 10 homes were being built near an Orange Lodge meeting house, stating that homes ‘for nationalists’ should not be built near the route of an annual 12 July march.
‘The waiting lists for social housing remain starkly unequal. Catholics wait 28 months for social housing in Belfast West, while Protestants wait, on average, little over a year’
Building homes for all is both achievable and desperately necessary – not just to house families adequately, but to allow communities to move on rather than permit small tranches on both sides to continue prosecuting historical tribal grievances. The carving up of neighbourhoods allows this to continue, and infrastructure like peace walls – together with the physical ‘chill factor’ that may accompany any violent murals – reinforces it. Many people want to live in mixed communities, but such neighbourhoods must be able to rely on safety from threats of violence. Doing so requires all communities to be involved and a proper structure for security to be in place so families moving in can be confident that they will be accepted in their new home and neighbourhood.
Building a future for Northern Ireland that moves on from the Troubles means ensuring equal rights for all and overcoming historical divisions: the two aren’t opposing forces when it comes to housing. As it stands, the nationalist community has less access to social housing than unionists – that can be addressed while increasing the number of mixed communities. People of all backgrounds in Northern Ireland need homes. Dinosaurs of the past relish division but housing can help to prevent tribalism if it’s delivered equitably and promotes the safety of everyone involved.
This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today