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4 May 2015 Edition

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‘The people of the Colin are coming home’

• The first mayor of the new Belfast super council, Sinn Féin's Arder Carson, with his mother Alice, who is 90 years of age

People hope they’ve left behind them the worst of the unionist discrimination practised by the DUP and UUP who dominated Lisburn Council

UNIQUE demographic and deprivation features of the Colin area include:

»The majority of the Colin area features in the top 6% most deprived areas in the Six Counties;

»The area has a large youth population, with 29% under 16 and nearly 50% under 25;

»In 2011, 65% of the 476 births in the area were to single parents;

»32% of those aged 16 and over have no educational qualifications;

»Unemployment is more than twice the Six Counties average;

 »From March 2010 to July 2011; there were 21 deaths by suicide in the Colin area.

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• Belfast super council's Mayor Arder Carson with his family

“THE PEOPLE OF THE COLIN area are coming home,” recently-appointed Mayor of the new Belfast ‘super’ council, Arder Carson, tells me in Tar Anall, the republican ex-prisoners’ organisation based in Belfast’s iconic Conway Mill.

‘The Mill’ is a building that has, over the years, come to represent the nationalist community’s perseverance and ability to turn adversity into triumph.

The new Belfast ‘super’ council got  up and running on 1 April and includes the Colin area, made up of Twinbrook, Poleglass and Lagmore. The people of these areas believe they have left behind them the worst of the unionist discrimination practised by the DUP and UUP who dominated Lisburn Council. They are hopeful of a better future.

For Arder Carson and the people of the Colin area, being part of the new Belfast council represents an opportunity to see investment in the area’s infrastructure as well as the hope that the Colin Town Centre Project whose proposals for a “co-ordinated and integrated regeneration plan focused on delivering social change, to revitalise the area and to encourage much needed investment” can be fulfilled.

The town of Lisburn, which attained city status in March 2002, is at the heart of the unionist-dominated Lagan Valley Westminster constituency.

Not only is Lisburn and Lagan Valley a predominantly unionist area, it is also a ‘garrison town’ through its long association with the British Army.

Thiepval Barracks was and is the British Army’s main base in the Six Counties as well as housing the British military’s headquarters. 

In 2011, Lisburn councillors voted to bestow the Freedom of the City on the British Army’s Royal Irish Regiment (RIR), whose forerunner, the Ulster Defence regiment (UDR), was notoriously sectarian with many of its members being convicted of involvement in unionist paramilitary activity.

On attaining city status, Lisburn marketed it self as “Lisburn: A City for Everyone”, yet the nationalist population of the Colin area were never included in this aspiration.

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• Arder Carson with Councillor Fra McCann supporting hospital staff in 2011

As the late 1960s and the pogroms of 1969 in particular rumbled into the early 1970s, the Twinbrook estate on the outskirts of Belfast saw an influx of nationalists who were burned out of their Lower Falls homes. Families such as Bobby Sands’s were intimidated out of predominantly loyalist areas like Rathcoole on the northern outskirts of Belfast.

What was initially meant to be a model “mixed” housing project became a nationalist estate.

Coupled to this was the demand for adequate housing for nationalists in west Belfast that had long been denied them by the unionist-controlled Stormont government to be addressed by the newly-established Housing Executive.

For those allocated the new housing there was the dichotomy of being geographically on the edge of west Belfast, their natural hinterland, yet politically and administratively under the control of the unionist-dominated Lisburn Council.

As housing demand in west Belfast increased and the new Poleglass housing project was mooted (with building to begin in 1973) unionists political parties, with the backing of unionist paramilitary organisations (mainly the UDA, which has traditionally been strong in the Lisburn area) objected.

When construction eventually got underway in 1979 and the first houses allocated in 1980, the scheme had been scaled back from a proposed 4,000 homes to just 1,563 as a result of the unionist objections.

The unionist-dominated council underpinned their hostility to the development of Poleglass by threatening to withhold services, such as refusing to empty the bins, of the new tenants.

The discrimination practised by the unionist council towards the nationalist electorate of the Colin area has been unremitting over this period.

With the rise of Sinn Féin and the party’s increasing representation on Lisburn, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party have both become more stringent in their hostility to Sinn Féin in particular and  nationalist councillors in general. One spin-off was policies that can easily be described as collective community punishment being implemented.

In 2003, at the council’s AGM, the unionists voted to exclude all non-unionists (and they included the Alliance Party in this!) from the positions of chair and vice-chair on all council committees while awarding these positions to themselves. 

So while many other councils across the North operated the d’Hondt system, allocating positions based on a party’s electoral strength, Lisburn’s unionist councillors remained in the electoral dark ages.

Fair employment statistics also show that Catholics are significantly under-represented in the workplace at Lisburn Council.

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Age is no barrier to unionist bigotry.

According to Sinn Féin in its dossier, Lisburn Council: A History of Discrimination (published in 2004), “The refusal to provide leisure and play amenities in Catholic areas of the council has been a feature” of the unionist strategy of depriving nationalists. The areas of Twinbrook, Poleglass and Lagmore accounted for more than 33% of the young population of Lisburn yet only one of the city’s play parks was located in these areas.

In 2004, Sinn Féin published another dossier, Living in Fear: A Loyalist Campaign of Murder, Violence and Intimidation. Sub-titled “Sectarianism within Lagan Valley”,  it accused the UDA of being primarily responsible for a campaign of sectarian violence directed against nationalists.

Using the Good Friday Agreement as its starting point, the preamble says:

“The Catholic and nationalist people of Lagan Valley have been on the receiving end of a highly-organised and sustained campaign of sectarian intimidation which has accelerated in intensity since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.”

The year prior to the report’s compilation, November 2003, 21-year-old Catholic James McMahon was beaten to death by a unionist gang wielding baseball bats.

Sinn Féin accused unionist politicians of a “deafening silence” before adding:

“Their silence can very easily be interpreted as, at best, ‘disinterest’ and, at worst, ‘approval’ by those on the receiving end of this violence.”

The dossier indicted the area’s MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, saying:

“The MP has been a vociferous opponent of the Good Friday Agreement yet has little to say or do when it comes to challenging loyalists attacking Catholics in Lagan Valley.”

At the forefront of challenging this loyalist thuggery was then Sinn Féin MLA Paul Butler.

Butler became a hate figure for the loyalists who targeted his home on numerous occasions, including gun and bomb attacks which put Butler and his family in mortal danger.

Since Sinn Féin had councillors first elected to Lisburn Council in 1985 they have lived with the threat of attack from loyalists and sustained harassment from the RUC and British Army.

Damien Gibney and Pat Rice, elected to the council in 1985, who sustained serious injuries during an assault by unionists as they attended a council meeting in November 1986 near the first anniversary of the signing of the Hillsborough Accord, accused the RUC of “turning a blind eye”.

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• Arder Carson was first co-opted to Lisburn Council in 2008

Among the best-known and a tireless worker for the people of the area was Michael Ferguson, who died in September 2006, aged 53.

First elected as a councillor in 1999, Ferguson was later elected to the Assembly, where he advocated the rights, needs and interests of his community.

Sinn Féin has always promoted women activists in the  Colin area, with Sue Ramsey and Jennifer McCann (Jennifer presently a junior minister in the Stormont Executive) among the better-known.

And that mantle of people’s champion sits well on the shoulders of Arder Carson.

A butcher by trade, Carson turned his energy to activism as a development worker in Poleglass, where his commitment to the community earned him the reputation “a man for the people”.

In 2008, he was co-opted onto Lisburn Council before transferring down to his native Andersonstown and moving into Belfast prior to the establishment of the ‘super council’.

“The council has big plans for Colin,” says Carson. “We in Sinn Féin are determined to redress the neglect suffered by the communities here as a result of unionist bigotry.”

If the Colin area (with a population of 25,000) has been characterised, on the one hand, by the neglect it has faced from the unionist regime in Lisburn, then on the other is a vibrant community sector driven by activists such as former Sinn Féin Councillor Annie Armstrong, the present manager of the Colin Neighbourhood Partnership (CNP).

Their signature project, The Colin Town Centre Project, is geared towards the regeneration of the area around the Dairy Farm Shopping Centre on the Stewartstown Road.

In the proposal for the New Town Centre for Colin, published in April 2013, CNP calls for a “co-ordinated and integrated regeneration plan focused on delivering social change to revitalise the Stewartstown Road and to encourage much-needed investment.

“The Colin Town Centre would create a heart, a focal point for health, retail, leisure, cultural and educational services and facilities for the benefit of all.”

Arder Carson says:

“In face of the hardships the Colin community has faced, there is a strong, committed and motivated community sector that has achieved much.

“There is much more to do but the leaders are there to do it.”

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