The ongoing unrest in Belfast has drawn attention to Northern Ireland’s unique security infrastructure, as rioters clash across – and even attack – so-called “peace lines”. These “peace lines” are towering walls of brick, iron, and steel, often with gates that close at night to separate communities along largely sectarian lines. A fortnight ago, crowds of young rioters – likely whipped up by loyalist paramilitary organisations – hijacked and rammed burned-out cars against one such “security barrier” in West Belfast.
These events raise concerns about the continued strength of paramilitary groups over two decades after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement promised to bring peace. In my research, I’ve found one surprising reason these groups endure: the social housing system.
Social housing plays an important role in Northern Ireland, where 17 per cent of the population lives in relative poverty. Nearly the same proportion declare a preference for living in a neighbourhood of their own religion only, and social housing remains largely segregated. New projects aimed at providing mixed social housing are often quickly marked by sectarian and paramilitary symbolism.
To combat long housing waiting lists – 38,745 people at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 – the Northern Ireland Housing Executive uses a points-based system designed in the 1970s. The system allocates points to an individual based on criteria such as homelessness (70 points), lack of electricity in their current accommodation (10 points), or dampness that is prejudicial to health (10 points). But the most lucrative criterion is intimidation (200 points).
The housing scheme awards intimidation points if the applicant’s home has been “destroyed or seriously damaged (by explosion, fire or other means) as a result of a terrorist, racial or sectarian attack” or if they would be at “serious and imminent risk” of death or serious injury if they stayed in their home. From 2017-2018, the NIHE reported that around 80 per cent of accepted intimidation applicants were fleeing paramilitary intimidation.
These points elevate victims of paramilitary intimidation to the top of the list, which can mean swift access to new-build housing. While well-intentioned and necessary to protect individuals from serious injury and death, this points system is ripe for abuse. Since individuals subject to intimidation will be quickly re-housed, paramilitary groups can run those they deem “undesirable” out of town through broken windows, paint bombs, or worse. Only last week, families that the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) “believed” were Catholic were expelled from a housing estate in Carrickfergus.
These threats are “verified” either through the police, or, more commonly, through charities and community groups that have contacts in paramilitary organisations. This keeps Northern Ireland housing estates heavily segregated, with the Housing Executive (which also owns many of the peace lines) tacitly enforcing these divisions.
This system gives paramilitary organisations considerable power in the poor urban communities where I have done research in recent years. Loyalist paramilitary groups have been particularly adept at using this power. A community worker who interacts with these groups told me braggadociously that no one is moved within social housing without the knowledge and control of loyalist paramilitaries. It was as simple, he said, as a member of one paramilitary organisation ringing another up to provide a “heads-up” that an individual deemed “undesirable” was headed their way.
Take, for example, “Jonny,” a young man from a loyalist community, who was dealing small amounts of drugs to support his own addiction. This had put him on the radar of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the UVF, and resulted in both violent threats (including death threats) and actual violent retribution – “punishment violence” – against him. Jonny’s behaviour was seen as undesirable in the communities, yet neither organisation wanted Jonny or his family to “benefit” by being prioritised for housing. As a result, when the housing authorities sought to verify the threats against him, they were simply told they came not from paramilitary organisations, but from the community. Jonny’s only options to escape immediate violence were homelessness, or a hostel.
In my research, I found paramilitaries leveraging intimidation and the points system against many vulnerable individuals, from those struggling with addiction to victims of domestic violence. While such tactics affect a small number of households overall, they have a ripple effect: from the individuals intimidated, to their families, to the community at large. Moreover, they send a dangerous message to young people in communities such as Jonny’s: toe the line, leave, or we will hurt you. In some neighbourhoods, the mere threat of this kind of violence is now enough to maintain considerable influence over young people.
In recent weeks, we witnessed the cost of such control. While life in Northern Ireland is “immeasurably better” than during the so-called “Troubles”, residential segregation and the power it gives paramilitaries in poor urban neighbourhoods continues to fuel violence, recruiting new generations of young people to this cause.
While these issues are increasingly recognised within Northern Ireland, they are poorly understood by the British public. And even in Northern Ireland itself, the political will to address them appears to be lacking. Following a public consultation in 2017, the Northern Ireland Executive’s minister for communities, Deirdre Hargey, rejected a proposal to remove intimidation points, stating that the points are “still needed today to meet the specific needs of the most vulnerable” – even as the points system is itself a cause of vulnerability. Instead, Hargey is exploring tighter verification procedures to prevent individuals making false claims to move up the list. But such an approach only puts authorities in a game of chicken with paramilitary members – with lives at stake.
Instead, to break the link between economic vulnerability and paramilitary power in Northern Ireland, the government should invest in expanding the social housing supply to eliminate the waiting list. Guaranteeing housing security to all, rather than making it contingent on paramilitary favour is a necessary and overdue step to undo the influence of paramilitaries and lay the foundations for a sustainable peace.
Kaitlin M. Ball PhD is an attorney and legal researcher from the University of Cambridge focused on post-Patten security in Northern Ireland.