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24 August 2015updated 26 Aug 2015 1:15pm

Northern Ireland is trying to socially engineer council estates to make Catholics and Protestants live together

Simply putting people together in a council estate and hoping for the best is proving to be a naïve option that papers over very real distrust between the two communities.

By Siobhan Fenton

Outside Northern Ireland, the idea of Catholic streets and Protestant streets can seem absurd. They aren’t marked in any obvious way that would catch the eye of someone unfamiliar with the country’s politics. There are no clergy stationed on driveways testing theological doctrine as a condition of entry, no holy water in the hallways, nor crucifixes hanging over doorways.

But for locals, everyone knows instantly which is which; where they’d be welcome to move in and where they wouldn’t.

As in so many other ways in Northern Ireland, people find a way of finding their own “sort” and sticking with them. It’s a complicated and unspoken language that only locals understand, but it continues to dictate much of everyday life.

The school uniforms which the children in the street wear, how they spell their names, the newspapers people read or how they pronounce certain letters; all contribute to the unacknowledged but ever present identification parade of the religious divide.

It was when violence broke out in the Troubles in the late Sixties that people first started moving to areas segregated by religion as they feared for their own safety. While the violence they feared has fortunately ended, much of the suspicion remains and so to do the Catholic and Protestant streets. The latest figures show that more than 90 per cent of public housing “belongs” to one religion or another, numbers which haven’t really altered since the early nineties before the peace process began.

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In a bid to try and integrate communities, the Northern Irish government has been working on an ambitious project for the last few years to create “shared housing” in new council home builds. The aim is that when allocating council housing, no more than 70 per cent of one religion will be allocated to an estate.

The hope is that while Protestants and Catholics don’t want to live together by choice, they will if they are desperate for council accommodation. Then, once they live together, they will realise “the other side” isn’t so bad after all and community tensions will be broken down.

It’s a noble ambition, but the high minded, peace driven principles have not been welcomed with open arms. Last weekend, some harrowing graffiti appeared on the wall of one of one of the new experimental estates in an area called Newtownabbey.

The spray paint, purporting to be by local Catholics, warned that although the government had designated the estate as mixed religion, any Protestants who moved in would be bombed, burnt out and then shot.

Following the threats, the housing authority has said that it is continuing with the scheme and will not be intimidated by the people behind it. But the scheme is coming under considerable strain as its hard to see if any Protestants will now feel sufficiently safe to move in.

The policy raises a number of ethical issues including whether it is right for the state to try and socially engineer communities in such an overt and contrived way.

It places the responsibility for social integration on working class people. The middle classes are just as likely to live separately but it is only people living in council housing who will be subject to the scheme and therefore the only focus of government attempts to solve sectarianism. Is it right for middle class politicians, civil servants and academics to enforce standards on the poorest members of society, standards which they themselves do not adhere to?

The government also faces accusations of taking advantage of the strained economic climate to push the policy as they know that people become more and more desperate for social housing amid high poverty and unemployment rates. Housing should be given to vulnerable people based on need, not their political beliefs or their religion.

Yet it’s clear that Northern Ireland’s housing stalemate isn’t getting any better by itself. Demographic figures show that a young person moving into their first home now is not much more likely to have a neighbour of another faith than their parents or grandparents did.

Segregated housing in Northern Ireland is something of a “chicken and egg” situation in that it’s hard to identify which came first – do we distrust the other religion because we do not live with them, or do we not live with them because we distrust them?

Certainly, Northern Ireland cannot truly escape its dark past while people refuse to accept each other as neighbours. However, simply putting people together in a council estate and hoping for the best is proving to be a naïve option that papers over very real distrust between the two communities that will need to be dealt with before, or at least in conjunction with, any housing schemes.

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