2 June 2014 Edition
No place like home – or no home for north Belfast Catholics
So the Frederick Street site is a car park and more than 1,300 Catholic families remain on an ever-growing housing waiting list
LAUNCHING a scathing attack on Executive Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland over housing allocation in north Belfast Sinn Féin MLA Carál Ní Chuilín accused the senior DUP man of “gerrymandering”.
During a heated debate in the Stormont Assembly on Tuesday 13 May, Ní Chuilín told McCausland he was manipulating figures to disguise the chronic housing need for Catholic families in areas like the New Lodge.
On the same day, online newspaper The Detail broke the news that both McCausland and North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds, along with other DUP figures, had been involved in “intense lobbying” of the Housing Executive in which “allegations of gerrymandering were made”. Dodds accused Housing Executive officials of “driving people out of Belfast”.
The Detail obtained the information through a Freedom of Information request and discovered that the DUP held 12 unpublicised meetings, facilitated by McCausland, with Housing Executive officials.
Accompanying Dodds and McCausland was the DUP’s Stephen Brimstone.
The Social Development Minister’s controversial special political adviser was at the centre of a BBC Spotlight investigation into DUP ‘irregularities’ with building firm Red Sky and accusations that Brimstone pressured a DUP councillor to put party interests first in a Housing Executive vote on the Red Sky contract.
McCausland and the Department for Social Development (DSD) have been under fire over their refusal to acknowledge (never mind tackle) the problems in north Belfast where 1,327 Catholic families compared to 506 Protestant families are on the waiting list.
Observers believe the DUP attitude is based on the electoral challenge posed by Sinn Féin in north Belfast.
Commentator Jude Collins wrote tongue in cheek on his blog: “There’s no connection between religious background and voting patterns in north Belfast. Never has been, never will be. And the DUP’s keen interest in presenting north Belfast housing needs as ‘roughly the same’ rather than near to three times as great for Catholics as for Protestants has nothing – repeat, nothing – to do with their concerns over the narrowing lead at the polls of Nigel Dodds over Gerry Kelly.”
Adding to the DUP and McCausland’s woes is the ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ campaign, supported by the Participation and Practice of Rights group.
• Nigel Dodds and Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland
The housing pressure group looked at how changes to the way religious background is monitored to make it appear that inequality has been reduced.
“But the reality is that inequality is persistent and the gap between Protestants and Catholics has been narrowed largely because of people whose religious background is recorded as ‘Unknown’.”
The Housing Executive reported 46% of people in housing distress as Catholic whereas figures from Participation and Practice of Rights put the figure as high as 74%.
Significantly, figures for housing waiting lists are traditionally measured by local council district boundaries, whereas the DUP has unilaterally argued to use the north Belfast Westminster and Assembly constituency boundary, which includes predominantly unionist areas such as Rathcoole and Newtownabbey.
McCausland has used this distorted measurement in Stormont Assembly debates to rebuff accusations of discrimination.
• There is a chronic housing shortage in areas such as the New Lodge
That this series of meetings went unpublicised (and with the further disclosure that the board of the Housing Executive was not informed of the meetings, because they were “considered operational matters”) raises the suspicion that the DUP politicians were attempting to interfere in the “operational independence” of that body.
The Housing Executive was set up to deal with the politically sensitive issue of housing allocation in the wake of the Civil Rights campaign in the late 1960s.
An example of McCausland’s keen interest in housing matters in north Belfast can be seen by his blocking of a social housing development in Frederick Street, near the nationalist New Lodge area.
The Housing Executive put forward proposals for houses to be built but an official in the Department of Social Development contacted the Executive on McCausland’s behalf, stating that the land was earmarked for a car park in the Department of Social Development/Belfast Regeneration Organisation Masterplan. He ‘requested’ the Executive “delete” the proposal.
So the Frederick Street site is a car park and more than 1,300 Catholic families remain on an ever-growing housing waiting list.
A Sinn Féin complaint with the Equality Commission over the failure of McCausland to tackle the housing problems in north Belfast raises the concerns of UN Special Rapporteur Raquel Rodnik, who cited the need for more social housing and highlighted the plight of Catholic families.
Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey, Fra McCann and Mickey Brady asked the Equality Commission what actions they have undertaken to progress international obligations within the Department of Social Development.