Forty years on, housing remains a running sore

The fortieth anniversary of the October 1968 civil rights march in Derry is something that, while it’s obviously hugely significant, I must admit I haven’t been going out of my way to look at. This year there’s been a rather wearying parade of has-beens backslapping themselves about what they did forty years ago, not to mention lots of people claiming credit for the civil rights movement. This has usually taken the form of “Yo! We won! And I and my close collaborators were the guys wot won it.”

In the media, this has boiled down to a protracted bunfight between the SDLP and the Provos about who played the most significant role. Actually, the Sticks and the Communist Party probably have more convincing claims, although they don’t get the airtime. (One might also mention Socialist Democracy, the lineal residue of the old PD, except they don’t seem terribly keen on making anything of their illustrious history.) So, though I’m always happy to see the inimitable Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh on the telly, the anniversary hasn’t been preoccupying me inordinately.

But here’s something curious. Last Sunday there was a civil rights demo in Belfast city centre, in the form of the North Belfast Housing Action Committee, with a very creditable turnout of around 400. Even more creditable given that the driving force seemed to be the IRSP – at least they were the only organised force there apart from some anarchists. (I was even a little surprised the anarchists were there, as this is the sort of thing the left usually run a mile from. A little too nationalist, you see.)

And this actually flags up that in certain areas, and around certain issues – housing in North Belfast is a key example – the dilemmas of forty years ago are still incendiary. The background is this. In North Belfast, there is a huge housing list, and areas like Ardoyne are bursting at the seams. What’s more, 87% of those on the housing list are Catholic. And yet, there is lots of empty housing stock in North Belfast, but the trouble is it’s all in designated Protestant areas.

And what makes the problem even more apparent is the long-term demographic decline of Protestant North Belfast. Many of these areas are not far off being derelict. Anyone who has the opportunity to move out does so, and you’re basically left with those too old to move, those too poor to move and the paramilitaries. But Catholics can’t move into these areas, because that’s called encroachment, and it drives North Belfast Prods buck mad.

So here’s a problem that’s been simmering away for many years and has only got worse. What do you do? Well, you can avoid actively sectarianising the issue, and seeing if you can find a few progressive Prods who are willing to pitch in. But again, any solution to the housing issue will be a solution that unionism – and not only the extreme sectarian fringes – seriously won’t like. But there’s also a problem with the normal leftist nostrum of class unity – if your strategy is to wait for the Prods, North Belfast nationalists are likely to give you a dusty response. And there’s no getting past that 87% figure.

Quite a conundrum, isn’t it? And a conundrum that was all too familiar in 1968…

Rud eile: I am pleased to note that regular commenter Garibaldy is now in the blogging game, and has some pertinent thoughts.


  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    October 7, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    Interesting. Hard not to feel that some fairly obvious left issues (and I take your point about how difficult these may be to deal with in a traditional leftist fashion) are reappearing as if they never went away – as they clearly didn’t but were merely submerged.

  2. Garibaldy said,

    October 7, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    I was wondering who was behind that march, as I’d noticed the posters and saw something about it in the paper. Good to find out. The housing situation in North Belafst is extremely complex, and was made much more so as an offshoot of the disputes over marches during the mid-1990s. Basically, the UDA decided that no more territory was going to be lost, and burned a lot of Catholics out of areas where they had been starting to move in, especially in and around the Whitewell Road, where sectarian street violence and protests against marches made for a very nasty mix. Things at the interfaces in north Belfast have calmed down a great deal, but I wouldn’t want to be the first Catholic family to move back in to some of those areas. One indication of the remaining problems is that a peaceline was put up INSIDE the grounds of an Hazelwood integrated school on the Whitewell Road after very dangerous attacks from a loyalist area on the oil tankers of perceived Catholic homes on the other side of the grounds.

    The situation is similar to 40 years ago in some respects, but also very different. The selling off of social housing has been a massive mistake, and now we are groping about for solutions. The only real long-term solution will be a strategy of integrated housing as well as schooling, but one of the first things the new DUP/PSF hydra did was to chuck the Shared Future strategy straight in the bin.

    I can understand you not being obsessed with the events of 40 yeras ago, but for those who are, I’ve just posted a review of last night’s TV show on the October 5th march on Cedar Lounge Revolution. And thanks for the plug. My stats counter is showing the benefit already 🙂

  3. October 8, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    interesting article … does there a tradition of squatting exist in the six counties?

  4. Ciarán said,

    October 8, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    The Shared Future policy was nothing but a load of cacamas, but it’s obvious why it would be supported by the kind of people who think that integrated education is the panacea for our ills, who think that the fundamental problems in the Six Counties stem from intolerant attitudes instead of the real issues of structural inequality. How many people waiting on houses in North Belfast are táigs again?

    Anyone seriously interested in cutting through the NIO bullshit should read the likes of CAJ’s 2006 report, “Equality in Northern Ireland: the Rhetoric and the Reality”.

  5. Garibaldy said,

    October 9, 2008 at 9:39 am

    The CAJ website seems not to be working. The Shared Future policy was flawed, but it contained some genuinely progressive elements, and a commitment to it seems to me to be more positive than throwing it in the bin in the interests of not appearing soft against the other sectarian bloc. I don’t recall anyone ever saying that integrated education was a panacea, but integrated communities would be a very positive step in ending sectarianism.

    Doubtless there are serious problems regarding housing, not just in north Belfast, but throughout the north. One of the main reasons why has been the sale of council housing and the desire to leave the provision of house building to the market, thus disadvantaging ordinary working people. Class is one form of structural inequality we shouldn’t forget. I’d like to see more houses getting built where they are needed, and the North Belfast CRA or Housing Action Committee is addressing a real problem.

    On the question of why the houses in perceived protestant areas are being left empty. It could be discrimination by authorities who don’t want Catholics to have homes, or it could be the fact that the authorities are refusing to face up to the sectarianism that exists, and want to avoid the hassle of dealing with the violence that would result from moving large numbers of Catholics into these areas. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter rather than the former. Nor would I necessarily agree entirely with the picture of many protestant areas painted by Splintered – the voting patterns of north Belfast suggest that the protestant community is more substantive than people sometimes realise.

    I mentioned integrated communities above. Part of that should not just be the proper provision of housing, but also proper economic planning. The danger in many parts of Belfast is that so many apartment blocks are being built everywhere that there will be no room left to put any industries. This is why strong state intervention is still more necessary.

    I have to confess that I’m somewhat baffled by the idea that having virtually an entire society shaped by sectarian intolerant attitudes is not a structural issue. It seems to me to be the structural issue, especially as it clouds the fundamental class reality behind the rhetoric of the sectarian blocs.

  6. August 14, 2009 at 1:03 am

    […] the two factors playing off against each other. A lot of this manifests itself around the issue of housing, specifically the huge waiting lists in some nationalist areas, and masses of empty housing stock […]

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