Monday, November 07, 2005

NIHE failing to home in on Catholics

Brian Feeney:

Recently you might have read an item in this paper about a new housing development in Belfast's former docklands, known locally as Sailortown. To most readers it would have been a minor good news story. In reality the announcement was a triumph for the efforts of the few individuals heading the St Patrick's & St Joseph's Housing Committee who have struggled for years to have housing put back into a district the DOE has left derelict and dilapidated for a generation.

However the housing committee has bigger fish to fry than a small development in the docks. Last month they produced the results of research they commissioned into housing in north Belfast as a whole. It repays careful study. The blunt conclusion is that the Housing Executive (NIHE) and Stormont's Department of Social Development (DSD) are failing Catholics in north Belfast.

The evidence is quite straightforward. In 2000, almost thirty years after NIHE was established, it produced a North Belfast Strategy to deal with the acute housing crisis facing Catholics there. In March 2000 although Catholics made up 40% of households in north Belfast, they comprised 73% of NIHE's waiting list. More significantly, Catholics made up 81% in the priority category of urgent need. Four years later, in March 2004, Catholics made up 83% of the urgent need category. Not only has NIHE's so-called North Belfast Strategy failed, the situation for Catholics is worse than when it was drafted.

It was bound to be so. For most of its existence, and certainly since the 1980s, the outcome of the Housing Executive's policy has coincided remarkably precisely with unionist policy in north Belfast. Unionist policy was summed up admirably concisely in May 2005's nakedly sectarian DUP election slogan: 'Keep North Belfast Unionist!' That might seem a difficult task given that the unionist population of many districts in the constituency has collapsed. Twenty years ago NIHE reported that while the Catholic population in north Belfast grew between 1971 and 1985 by 6.4%, the Protestant population fell by 38%. Catholic households grew by 11.8% while Protestant ones fell by 27.6%.

However unionism's objective has been made much easier when NIHE and DSD combine with the DOE to help it along. By the mid-1980s the Belfast Development Office, a body devoid of nationalist councillors, had conspired with the DOE and security forces to fence off most nationalist districts in north Belfast. Despite acres of empty ground in neighbouring unionist districts, fences were always sited right up against Catholic housing to corral the residents. The New Lodge was completely corralled by 1986. Ardoyne was walled off by so-called interface fences by 1992 with the completion of the Alliance Avenue fence. Money to build these walls and fences often came from environmental improvement funds for the Catholic areas.

The effect of course was to halt expansion of the growing Catholic populations beyond these districts and to produce chronic over-crowding. Any suggestion of meeting the dire housing need of Catholic families was received with hysteria from unionist representatives.

The Irish News of June 2000 reported this response of the then Housing minister (sic), Nigel Dodds: 'The reality is that ordinary Protestants have seen the area being run down over the years having been forced out by the IRA and SF Hitlerite Nazi tactics. What we are seeing is demands by nationalist politicians to take away the peace-lines. It's a recipe for civil war.'

The reverse was the truth. In fact NIHE for years had been building houses in unionist districts where, on its own admission there is no demand. In fact there is excess housing stock in Protestant areas. Why do they do it? 'To stabilise the area', 'to attract people back', they say. Yet they encourage Catholics to 'become more mobile'. The result is the same dwindling unionist population moving around north Belfast as house prices fall. Nationalists are forced to move to outlying districts while within nationalist areas house prices soar.

Not surprisingly both NIHE and DSD are very sensitive and highly defensive about their activities in north Belfast. They'll blind you with figures and dates but they can't deny the simple facts: the outcome of their actions is the opposite of the purpose for which the Housing Executive was created.

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