There was a discussion of the Girdwood barracks site on Hearts and Minds last night. It was strangely reminscent of Newton Emerson’s description of the budget process, except in this case it’s not working.
The site is in dispute because both nationalist parties see it as a piece of neutral territory upon which to build houses to hold an overflowing Catholic population in North Belfast. According to the Belfast Media Group (last year):
2147 people are on the North Belfast housing waiting list. 1675 (69 per cent) are Catholic. Of the 1437 people in ‘housing distress’ on the list, 1067 (74 per cent) are Catholic.
Unionist argue however that neighbouring districts like Tigers Bay have been allowed to fall into disrepair, and that the need to better elderly care falls as heavily on Protestant communities as Catholic ones.
The DUP wanted to maintain it as a neutral site, insisting that it be prioritied for business development. And judging by Fred Cobain’s mien last night, the UUP just seem to be embarrassed by the whole thing.
The original consultation document also mentions facilities being hosted on the site for the Mater Hospital and St Malachy’s College. The more recent report underlines the need for the plan to address matters other than housing:
The site must be developed in a way that will attract businesses, investment and visitors into the area to create wealth and jobs. Hence the project should prioritise issues such as increased employment, tourism, health provision and the potential for improved educational facilities and accessibility to crèche facilities.
Creating wealth and jobs is a DUP priority. However all attempts to get any substantial employers, even provisionally, to come to this site have failed miserably.
So the upshot of the whole thing is that, despite claims by Alban Maguinness to the contrary, the matter being cross cutting across Social Development, Health, Regional Development, DETI and OFMdFM is now stuck with the Exective and the Minister now seems powerless to act.
As Gerry Kelly and Ian Crozier pointed out on the programme last night, last year the SDLP tried to claim they were about to move on this issue when Margaret Ritchie was the Minister:
At the weekend Margaret Ritchie announced 200 social houses on Girdwood would start immediately, despite no agreement amongst nationalists and unionists on housing for the site to date. Plans to build 300 private houses, aimed at the affordable housing market also on the site however have not been greenlighted by the minister.
Needless to say, those houses have not yet been built. And it is unlikely that the 220 houses announced by Alex Attwood will ever get built there unless and until there is some form of agreement between all parties holding the relevant portfolios.
Welcome to the pre-electoral season…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty