Girdwood Plan – sectarianism trumps social need
The announcement of a plan for the development of the former Girdwood army barracks site in north Belfast was presented by local parties as a major breakthrough in the efforts to regenerate an area blighted by sectarian divisions and social deprivation. However, when we examine that plan in greater detail, and look beyond the headline statements and carefully choreographed photo opportunities, we find that it actually reinforces the division and deprivation that it purports to be tackling.
A statement from the Dept. for Social Development, which accompanied the unveiling of the Girdwood plan, claimed that it would deliver “shared development opportunities” to support social, sports, economic and residential development. However, the reference to housing was extremely vague. The DUP minister, Nelson McCausland, refused to say how many houses would be built. A map of the proposed development shows only a small proportion of the site being given over to residential use - accommodating as few as one hundred houses. The residential space is also divided into two separate zones - one near the Antrim Road which appears likely to attract nationalist residents, another on Clifton Park Avenue, just outside the Girdwood perimeter, which seems more oriented towards unionists. Located between these two residential zones is the so-called “community hub” which will encompass sports facilities and commercial premises. This is supposed to be a shared facility but given the segregated nature of the housing on the site is more likely to become a barrier or no man’s land.
The plan for Girdwood does nothing to address social deprivation in north Belfast, particularly its chronic housing problem. There are currently 2,400 people on the social housing waiting list for that district. And while the residential development of the Girdwood site would not have solved this problem, its capacity to accommodate up to 400 houses would have made a significant impact.
The flaws in the Girdwood plan are not just a case of poor design. It is the outcome of a process in which social needs are trumped by the imperatives of sectarianism. In the case of Girdwood this has been running for some time. The site was transferred to the Dept. for Social Development six years ago and over that period there have been various plans for its development. Last year, the then Social Development Minister Alex Attwood of the SDLP unveiled plans for the building of 200 homes. This was bitterly opposed by the DUP who denounced it as “deeply destabilising”. When the DUP's Nelson McCausland came in and took over the department he stopped it from going ahead. Though it wasn’t stated explicitly the obvious concern of the DUP was that any new housing on the site would be occupied by nationalists. And if housing were allocated on the basis of need this would certainly be the case. Current waiting lists for north Belfast show that 74% of social housing tenants are from a Catholic background while 26% are Protestant. There are also significantly more Catholics than Protestants in the area who have been assessed as in urgent need of housing. The Housing Executive has estimated that 95% of new build housing in north Belfast is required by Catholics. This is not to say that there are no housing needs in Protestant areas, but those needs are not as acute and relate more to maintenance of existing properties rather than to new build.
In the new plan for Girdwood the principal of allocating housing on the basis of objective need, which has come to be known as the “points system”, has been set aside in order to reserve housing for one particular community even where no such need or demand exists. In order to conform to this communal imperative the Housing Executive has been sending out leaflets specifically targeted at Protestants. This is a long way from the original remit of the Executive whose establishment in the early 1970’s was seen as an advance for civil rights.
The irony is that such overtly sectarian polices are being promoted under the banner of “a shared future”. While this may sound progressive it has nothing to do with integration or equality. Indeed, it has more in common with the concept of “group rights” in apartheid South Africa or that of “separate but equal” in the southern states of the US during the period of the Jim Crow Laws. It is also worth noting that the Girdwood plan is backed and partly funded by the EU. This, coming so soon after the announcement of €1 million in EU funding for the Orange Order, should dispel any illusion that Europe is going to liberalise the north of Ireland.
The Girdwood plan and the direction of the Dept. of Social Development under the DUP, points to the return of a period when housing policy was used by unionists to maintain control over “their” areas. The difference is that now it has the endorsement of nationalist parties. Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly defended his party's role in agreeing the plan to redevelop arguing that: “We now have a masterplan which is workable”. However, it is only “workable” because Sinn Fein have capitulated to the DUP’s demands, gaining in return funds to increase their own patronage in the nationalist areas of housing in north Belfast. Also one should not forget the dogs that don’t bark – the majority of civic society and many of the trade unions remain obstinately silent in the face of this rampant sectarianism. In this the Girdwood plan is reflective of the wider political settlement in the north in which sectarianism has triumphed over democratic rights.
Since the unveiling of the Girdwood plan more information has made public which shows the degree to which the policy of the Housing Executive is being made to fit a DUP agenda. In relation to the Girdwood site the investigative website The Detail has obtained documentation showing that McCausland held “discussions” with the Housing Executive to ensure that four loyalist areas in north Belfast were included in a new build scheme despite having no sign of significant homelessness. As well as this intervention in policy there has also been what could be seen as intimidation. In February the Dept. of Social Development, in response to questions form a DUP MLA, published information on the community background of Housing Executive staff working in north Belfast. Less than a week later a car belonging to an employee was destroyed after it was set on fire by masked youths as it was parked outside the agency’s district office in Newtownabbey. It has now been revealed that McCausland rejected advice from his own officials against publishing this information. In many ways these methods are an updated version of the old Paisleyite rabble rousing tactics used by unionists to whip up sectarian sentiment then dissociate themselves from any loyalist violence that ensued. The fact that the DUP are still engaged in such tactics shows the degree to which it remains a hard-core sectarian party. With the establishment of the new regime at Stormont it has the opportunity to put its sectarianism into practice.