First Published in the Belfast Telegraph
The story of four families, intimidated from their homes, in an East Belfast shared neighbourhood, by Loyalist paramilitaries, has unfortunately taken its place in the continuing narrative of our troubled past. The part that housing has played in that past is worth remembering.
49 years ago, Emily Beatty, a 19 year-old unmarried Protestant woman and secretary of a local Unionist politician was allocated a house ahead of Catholic families with children. On 5 October 1968 a civil rights march, brutally disbanded by the RUC, made headline news around the world. What happened on that day is thought by many to be the beginning of what is euphemistically called the troubles.
In the 70’s, attempting to counter inequality, a housing allocation system based on need, also allowing future tenants to preference an area to live, was introduced. Yet those from Nationalist backgrounds were more likely to choose Nationalist areas and those from Loyalist backgrounds, Loyalist areas. Thus, four decades later the unsurprising but disturbing statistic that 90% of social housing is segregated into single identity communities. The drive towards equality creating what author Séan Mitchell calls a “benign apartheid”. In attempting to transcend inequality the principle of housing allocation based on need had perpetuated segregation. The two main communities could coexist but in isolation.
In 2013 the Northern Ireland Executive launched a strategy to create 10 shared neighbourhoods. Allocations continue to be based on need, but tenants are given a choice: single identity or shared community? It’s important for the Housing Executive that people are not forced to live in shared areas and that choice is maintained. New schemes are promoted as shared, but this does not guarantee that they are ‘branded’ as ‘shared’. For this a scheme must not be occupied by more than 70% of one religion, with all new tenants signing up to a good neighbour agreement.
Under the NI Executive’s, Together: Building a United Community (TBUC) strategy five ‘shared’ schemes — not containing more than 70% of one community — have been completed. Brendan Murtagh, a member of the TBUC Ministerial Housing Panel told me that “they’re experimental but that’s its value, they don't say it will work everywhere”. Organisations like, PPR support the principles but remain concerned that the scheme runs counter to equality principles in the Good Friday Agreement when it’s put forward as an alternative to housing based on need.
A few weeks ago I spoke to a Housing Officer from Radius Housing, who works with around 20 residents at the Global Crescent / Cantrell Close shared scheme in East Belfast. She spoke of a positive feeling among residents who are instrumental in helping work towards integration with residents groups organising events like, family fun days, coffee mornings, mums and tots group and a trip to Dublin. The neighbourhood has not been without it's problems but she described a definite feeling of community; with residents committed to seeing their children grow up in a neighbourhood that is tolerant and supportive. She told me about one resident who spoke happily of seeing neighbours outside chatting and kids playing together. Hearing her speak about the residents hopes for the area is something that I found very encouraging.
But, the undercurrent of our troubled past is strong, and with paramilitary forces continuing to dictate the geography of our city, some worry that ‘shared’ schemes are little more than mere token gestures. They may be small gestures, but they are nonetheless important ones. Nobody believes that shared neighbourhoods will solve the problem of segregated housing. But, they act as an important reminder, a signpost to what we hope will one day be a better, genuinely shared, future for our nation — a day when the majority of social housing will no longer be segregated by religion.
We are a long way from that day. There are now more peace walls in Belfast than there were before the Belfast Agreement. Under the brutal legacy of the troubles we continue to see segregation by religion; discrimination by religion; but perhaps most worryingly massive inequality in wealth as invisible walls of economic inequality separate communities across our nation. Other than London and Aberdeen there are more multimillionaires in Belfast than anywhere else in the UK, yet almost all segregated areas are designated as being in multiple deprivation, with 80% of the most deprived being ‘Catholic’ communities. We are a nation of coexisting but isolated communities; geographically near but economically worlds apart. This, shared neighbourhoods will not resolve.
In October 1932, Belfast’s sectarian divisions were transcended by a class politics. A story retold in Séan Mitchell’s book Struggle or Starve; a fascinating account of what became known as the ‘relief riots’. Catholic and Protestant workers coming together to protest against a harsh state relief program. Shared need, albeit briefly, eclipsed religious divisions. Only when sectarian forces relinquish their control of our city, and a needs based politics is cultivated that transcends religious divides, will we have future that is genuinely shared— a long shot, I know; but one worth thinking about.