Praying for new housing

Observations on Northern Ireland

Everybody knows the Seven Towers - they're on the horizon as you leave Belfast city centre on your way heading north, the most dangerous quarter of Northern Ireland during the armed conflict.

These tower blocks were thrown up during the 1960s and regarded as fortresses of nationalism. The blocks' problem was less the politics of their tenants than their inability to withstand the normal wear and tear of habitation.

Now they have handsome new foyers with concierges. But still they drive people crazy. Pigeons nest in the cladding, their droppings carpeting the landings, and raw sewage spews into baths and sinks.

The residents, together with the Public Participation and Rights project, organised a hearing last month on the state of their homes and provided video interviews for an audience of experts. A woman asked how she feels living in the blocks looks astonished by the question. "Are you serious?" she replies, before her hand covers her face and she bursts into tears.

Her children are among the 63 still living in the blocks - though the Northern Ireland Housing Executive agrees there shouldn't be any. These residents want out, though they don't want to leave the community. But there is a problem: they are Catholics.

Hard to believe, but true - almost a decade after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and three decades after the civil rights movement mobilised against the kind of institutionalised sectarianism that deprived some of access to public housing.

The Housing Executive was set up 30 years ago to address the crisis and is proud of its record. But questions using the Freedom of Information Act have harvested evidence that the Housing Executive is transgressing legal duties bequeathed by the Good Friday Agreement to promote equality, its own duty to reduce or remove the housing differential and the duty to respond to "objective need" inscribed in the St Andrews Agreement, the prelude to the restoration of devolved government.

The figures speak for themselves: 60 per cent of housing applicants are Catholic and 40 per cent Protestant. But 60 per cent of allocations are Protestant and only 40 per cent Catholic. In north Belfast the waiting list is 83 per cent Catholic.

The law requires the public authorities to target objective social need, irrespective of religion, and to test the impact of all policy-making in respect of named interests - including religion and political affiliation. But residents feel that they are told, not consulted, about housing strategy.

The 2000-2007 Housing Executive strategy, "Tackling Housing Need", set aside a £15m special fund to acquire land to meet urgent need - Catholic need.

However, it has spent only £5.3m. The executive also has the power to "vest" or assign land for development. But in its strategy document the authority laments that it can do nothing about segregation: "Surplus lands in one community are not readily available for use by another."

There is a seriously declining Protestant population and a stable Catholic presence. The Housing Executive's comment applies, therefore, to surplus land in Protestant communities.

Social researcher Eoin Rooney reminds us that since 2000 loyalists have drawn an Orange Line around territory deemed Protestant. His report, Waiting for Equality, reveals that the Housing Executive plan to build 2,300 new homes between 2000 and 2007, mostly to meet Catholic need, has failed. More than halfway through, less than a quarter had been built and 28 per cent of those were in Protestant communities with a housing surplus and "without identifiable need for new housing".

He noticed that the Unionist vote, in remorseless decline in the north Belfast parliamentary constituency since the early 1980s, was suddenly staunched in 2005.

When it launched the housing strategy, the Housing Executive made the extraordinary announcement that since social housing is segregated, there should be no social housing near the city centre. A government-commissioned document, the Grimley Report, on regeneration of the northern quarter, published in 2006, came to the same conclusion: "Further housing development has the potential of increased polarisation" and therefore, in the name of reconciliation and community relations, none should be built on the prized city centre sites. Instead, there should be private-sector apartment blocks - exactly the kind of residence the parents living in the Seven Towers don't want.

Neither the Grimley Report, nor the Housing Executive strategy, have tested their policies against "objective need", nor the legal requirement to assess their impact in relation to affected groups. The executive insists it is powerless to address sectarian segregation - to do so would entail unacceptable "social engineering".

But to some residents, what is going on is ethnic cleansing.