24 November 2005 Edition
Homes for votes
BY LAURA FRIEL
Sectarianism - Belfast nationalists still face discrimination in housing allocation
In the early 1990s a senior British auditor uncovered a homes for votes scandal in London that rocked the foundations of the British political establishment. The scandal broke when local government auditor John Magill ruled that a vote rigging scam known as "designated sales", which involved selling off council houses at knock down prices in marginal wards to potential Tory voters, had cost the local tax payer millions in lost revenue.
"Designated sales" which sold homes on the basis of a politically vetted 'approved' list was only one aspect of the council's 1987 "building stable communities" policy, a policy that attracted at least seven gerrymandering allegations. These included the selling of a homeless hostel in a marginal ward while actively seeking to relocate the homeless, perceived Labour voters, outside the borough.
The council also actively discouraged Housing Associations, tasked with building new social housing for the poor from building within the borough, effectively relocating people in need of social housing, also perceived Labour voters, outside the electoral ward. Targeted investment in environmental improvements to attract Tory buyers in the grand social housing sell off was another aspect of the vote rigging exercise.
Gerrymandering has a long and ignoble history in the North of Ireland, the most notorious example being in Derry in the mid-20th Century, when a unionist minority maintained political domination within the City by systematically denying housing to nationalists. At the time voting rights were restricted to householders with an additional business vote.
An example of gerrymandering cited by the Cameron Report was that of Derry County Borough "where 60% of the adult population was Catholic but where 60% of the seats on the Corporation were held by unionists". Cameron confirmed that the unionist controlled criteria for housing "was not actual need but maintenance of the current political preponderance in the local government area".
In the late 1960s, glaring malpractice in the provision and allocation of housing as a means of denying nationalists the right to vote had sparked the Civil Rights Movement and its demand for universal suffrage and an end to sectarian discrimination in housing and jobs.
By 1971 exposure of the gerrymandering scandal in Derry had resulted in the establishment of the Housing Executive, a government appointed body, designed to take housing policy and allocation out of the hands of local unionist politicians.
With the establishment of the Housing Executive the manipulation of social housing for political ends was deemed over, but three decades later Northern nationalists still find themselves unable to access social housing on an equal basis and there are clear indications that the underlying reason remains political.
Children's Commissioner Nigel Williams recently expressed shock that dozens of children were being forced to live in "unacceptable" conditions in North Belfast tower blocks. The commissioner said he was "gravely concerned" at the living conditions currently being endured by many families living in seven blocks in the New Lodge area. In the flats large families are sharing two-bedroom accommodation with as many as four children to a room with younger children often doubling up with their parents.
Residents described their children taking turns to sleep on the floor. The commissioner was informed of the many children receiving treatment for stress related conditions such as depression and anxiety. Others had developed learning difficulties such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADH) and dyslexia.
Following a visit to the tower blocks, the Children's Commissioner met with the Housing Executive to express concern and highlight the affects of living conditions on the children's health.
Housing Executive spokesperson Maurice Johnston accepted that the flats were "totally unsuitable". He said that the Executive expected to begin a £1 million improvement on the blocks next year. But nationalists living in North Belfast have plenty of reasons to be sceptical about promises by the Executive.
In 2000 the North Belfast Strategy was launched by the Housing Executive to address the chronic housing need in the area but after five years of the strategy being in operation there is not only no improvement, evidence has confirmed that the situation for nationalist families is worsening.
When the Housing Executive undertook to address the issue of chronic housing need in North Belfast demographic trends indicated a growing nationalist population and a declining unionist population in the area.
Currently around 40% of households in North Belfast are Catholic but statistics showed that a disproportionate number of Catholic families were waiting for accommodation (73%). This disadvantage worsened as assessment of need increased. A disproportionate number of Catholic households (81%) were described as in "urgent housing need".
The Housing Executive proposed to address the housing waiting list through a programme of New Build. It's a strategy that appears so completely obvious and transparent that no further consideration is required. A straightforward solution for people in need of housing is to build more houses.
It is equally obvious to target those in greatest need as a priority. But nothing is straightforward in the Six Counties.
St Patrick's and St Joseph's Housing Committee represents a number of housing groups throughout nationalist areas of North Belfast. Any initial optimism they experienced at the prospect of the Executive tackling the chronic housing need in their areas evaporated when instead of declining, waiting lists in nationalist areas increased.
By 2004 the overall waiting list had increased by 10% with an urgent need increase of 8%. The proportion of Catholics in urgent need increased from 81% to 83% in four years. Worse still, despite evidence of failure the Housing Executive vigorously defended its strategy, describing it as "right on track".
Something was wrong and the Housing Committee decided to find out what it was. The committee commissioned research to uncover the reasons underpinning the Housing Executive's failure.
Published earlier this year the Housing Committee's findings make remarkable reading. The purpose of the research was to identify the reasons behind the failure of the Housing Executive to tackle waiting lists. "Unable to comprehend the Executive's conduct in housing terms, it was necessary to look for alternative explanations. One theory is that the Executive has been influenced by unionist political lobbying and has consequently adopted a political agenda," says the report.
The report compares unionist political goals in North Belfast with the Executive's housing programme in the area. The DUP's agenda was clearly stated with the party's 2005 election slogan "Keep North Belfast Unionist". Faced with a narrowing electoral majority unionists have responded by attempting to stabilise their electoral base.
Unionist paramilitaries have used sectarian violence to curtail what, without intimidation, would have been the natural dynamic between an expanding nationalist community and declining unionist community. Unionist politicians have facilitated violent intimidation by recasting nationalist housing need as "republican aggression" and a form of "ethnic cleansing" against the unionist community.
In 2004 the UDA announced a campaign of interface violence designed to prevent nationalists moving out of their "designated" area. The UDA said an "Orange line" had been drawn around existing unionist areas. "While we realise that one community is growing faster than the other we cannot allow another garden, another house or another street to be attacked," said the UDA.
In this context "attacked" apparently means occupied by the growing nationalist population. The notion of "attack" was deliberately deployed by unionists to obscure what was a blatant sectarian policy as somehow something to do with "republican aggression".
DUP MLA Nigel Dodds responded to a modest call by the SDLP in June 2000 for government action to address the housing waiting list with familiar hysteria. He labelled the SDLP call as fascist while comparing tackling housing need for nationalists in North Belfast to Hitler's practice of 'lebensraum'.
In a similar vein unionist politicians attempted to "explain" interface violence by unionist paramilitaries as a response to "republican aggression". Eventually faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, unionist politicians recast their notion of "republican aggression". Unionists were not responding to actual aggression but the fact that the government had "consistently ignored" unspecified "IRA breaches of ceasefires", (Dodds 2001).
The report identifies interplay between three dynamics underpinning the failure to provide equal access to housing for nationalist families in North Belfast. First the agenda of unionist politicians determined to secure their electoral base, second, interface violence by unionist paramilitaries determined to impose the "Orange line" and third, the strategy of the Housing Executive.
The third layer of security for the Orange Line was provided by the Housing Executive. The executive recognised the Orange Line in 'Tackling Housing Need 2000' stating that: "Surplus lands in one community are not readily available for use by the other." Paddy McIntyre, Chief Executive of the Housing Executive added that territory could not be adjusted to reflect need because it was a "politically sensitive issue".
Clearly the Executive was unwilling to prioritise social need ahead of unionism's political agenda. As the report points out there was no plan to develop mixed housing estates and the redrawing of community boundaries to reflect need had been ruled out.
"It is important to point out that the position adopted by the Executive did not protect Catholics from loyalist attacks. By using the sectarian attack to justify its Orange Line policy, the Executive effectively rewarded and encouraged loyalist violence.
"It provided unionism with a choice; co-exist peacefully with your Catholic neighbours and we may have to redraw community boundaries, live in conflict and your electoral base will be protected. Far from challenging sectarianism, the Executive ensured that sectarian conflict was to the political benefit of unionism," says the report.
Detailing the Executive's New Build Programme, the report exposes the irrationality of building new homes in unionist areas where demand doesn't even meet the number of already vacant properties. In October 2003 there were 260 empty houses in Gainsborough and Mountcollyer. The waiting list in the area was 34, 13 of which were deemed to be in housing stress. Despite this 35 new builds are planned for Mountcollyer and 26 for Gainsborough.
The pattern has been repeated in other declining unionist areas. Despite a survey conducted by the Executive which found the demand for housing in the Grove area "remains low" and that there is a "substantial surplus of accommodation" the Executive built a further 59 new homes in the area. In Wheatfield the Executive built 31 new homes despite that fact that there were 166 empty houses and a waiting list of 24.
In March 2000, when the Executive announced its current strategy, there were 1,640 Catholic households on the housing waiting list in North Belfast. Of these 880 were described as in housing stress.
The Executive announced a New Build programme of 1,750 and suggested that 91% of these would be addressing housing need in Catholic areas. The figures reflect the fact that Catholics constitute 81% of the waiting list and the greater rate of growth in nationalist areas.
But by 2005 the Executive by its own admission had only built 650 units in nationalist areas. And the figures provided by the Executive included 101 acquisitions leaving the real figure at 519 only 22% of the units promised for nationalist areas. "It is easy to see why the actual and relative position of the Catholic community is worsening," concludes the report.
To add insult to injury, in 2001 as Assembly Minister for Social Development, Nigel Dodds of the DUP announced a £16.5 housing investment for unionist areas Gainsborough and Mountcollyer. The criteria cited by Dodds for this massive cash injection was not housing need but "unionist confidence".
The report concludes that the failure of the Executive to tackle housing need in nationalist areas of North Belfast "has led to the suspicion that the organisation has consciously adopted an objective, separate from that of meeting housing need."
Republicans often refer to the Six Counties as a sectarian state and speak of structural, sectarian discrimination and the operation and mechanisms of sectarian discrimination. In contrast, the prevailing discourse views sectarianism simply in terms of individually motivated bigotry played out, sometimes collectively, in the workplace, at school or on the streets.
A raft of British Government legislation tasked with combating sectarianism is primarily focused on tackling bigotry as attitude and as such remains blind to the interdependent, multifaceted nature of sectarianism as a dynamic system that continues to define the Six Counties. The operation of the Housing Executive in North Belfast provides just one example of this dynamic and the unnecessary misery in human terms that it engenders.