Wednesday 10 August 2011

North Belfast Housing Distress

Yesterday, I visited Long Kesh. I walked through the yard where Billy Wright was shot. I stood in the hospital cell where Bobby Sands passed away. I walked through one of the H-blocks and listened to stories of what went on in the 1970s and '80s. It was a disturbing environment - the dilapidated silence as powerful as screams echoing through the corridors.

OFMdFM has launched a regeneration scheme, which will turn part of the neglected prison grounds into a Peace building and Conflict Resolution Centre. It will be a space to remember the history of the site, from WWII through to the peace process. It will be an enlightening, positive place. This, I believe, is what Nelson McCausland MLA, the Minister for Social Development, has in mind for Crumlin Road gaol and Girdwood barracks. However, he has come under a lot of scrutiny for the decision not to include housing in the project.

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie initiated a housing development scheme on the Girdwood site as Minister for Social Development, but the current Minister has changed Department policy so as to remove the housing plans. The SDLP's Alban Maginness MLA has criticised this u-turn, arguing for the initial plan to develop 200 much-needed buildings. On the contrary, Nigel Dodds MP accused the SDLP of sectarian gamesmanship, calling the plan for social housing an example of electioneering. Whether the housing development would have materialised with an SDLP Minister, we can only guess.

The issue is controversial because there is a desperate need for accomodation in the area. The levels of housing distress are especially high amongst the Catholic community in North Belfast. The Housing Executive waiting list in the local area is almost 2,500, with the majority coming from a Nationalist or Republican background. For this reason, there have been strong allegations of sectarian governance (coming specifically from Sinn Féin's Conor Maskey in recent days). So is the decision to reject this opportunity for housing development in North Belfast an affront to the rights of those on the waiting list?

Although it may seem to be an extreme accusation, Mr McCausland's decision to renege on a Ministerial commitment to provide citizens with housing is arguably a denial of basic rights. I look forward to the outcome of the inevitable consultations with local interest groups, which I presume will make some strong arguments for their case.

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