Yesterday saw yet another housing inequality report, Equality Can’t Wait, published by north Belfast based Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) – the organisation which Inez McCormack founded in 2006. PPR’s systematic chronicling of successive failures to take action to eradicate the well documented religious inequality affecting the Catholic community in north Belfast is indeed impressive, if extremely depressing reading.
For those not into reading long reports, the key findings have been summarised by the PPR.
What I found interesting about the report is that, despite public perceptions, no political party emerges from the report with clean hands. Naturally, given recent and well-documented scandals about Minister McCausland’s stewardship of housing in the north of Ireland, much of the media coverage of the report has focussed on the DUP’s role in perpetuating religious inequality in housing.
This is nothing new, and stretches back to criticisms of Nigel Dodds’ role as Social Development Minister in the first Executive (2001-2002). ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ delves into recent steps taken by Minister McCausland to redefine housing need and target new build social housing through a programme called ‘Housing Led Regeneration’. Unbelievably, some of the criteria which determine if new build social housing should be considered include: areas which “are experiencing a decline in housing demand” and “are in proximity to places where there is housing need”. Unsurprisingly, but no less shockingly, two predominantly unionist areas in the Minister’s own constituency of North Belfast – Lower Oldpark and Tigers Bay – have been chosen to pilot the scheme.
But of particular interest is the role of Sinn Fein and the SDLP, who would arguably have most to gain by taking strong stands on this, in what is essentially ‘their constituency’.
According to the report, thetwo previous SDLP Social Development Ministers, Margaret Ritchie and Alex Attwood, presided over decisions which significantly reduced the numbers of new build social homes for north Belfast despite the acknowledged religious inequality, and presentations by the PPR to the Social Development Committee on a number of occasions.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP were both heavily represented on the Belfast City Council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee in September 2011 when they welcomed the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s decision to utilise Belfast City centre land for ‘shared space’ instead of addressing the long standing housing inequality experienced by Catholics in north Belfast.
Sinn Fein and SDLP, despite later protestations by SDLP, were both prominent in the political deal not to utilise land at Girdwood Barracks to address housing inequality.
Despite St Patrick’s and St Joseph’s Housing Committee 2005 plans for an Urban Village in Sailortown, Conor Murphy during his spell as Minister for Regional Development did not take any measures to promote religious equality in housing despite presiding over the largest windfall site in north Belfast – the 20 acres Belfast Harbour. Quite stark when contrasted with the all-party effort and multi-million pound investment into East Belfast’s Titanic Quarter across the lough. While it certainly seems that north Belfast Sinn Fein MLA Carál Ní Chuilín attempted to question Minister Murphy on this in the Assembly, there was no positive movement.
And this brings us to the crunch of it.
No doubt Sinn Fein and SDLP representatives will defend, with a large degree of truth and honesty, their history in defending those experiencing housing inequality. But the issue at stake here is not individual constituency work nor is it about local campaigns or press statements on religious inequality.
The issue is about exercising political power. Plain and simple.
SDLP and Sinn Fein are parties in government, not parties in opposition. They have the power to prioritise issues of concern to themselves and their constituencies. They have the power, which has been exercised previously, to dig their heels in and ensure issues pertinent to the implementation of the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreement are carried forward.
Orthey have the power to sacrifice, delay or compromise on equality and rights at the table of political party deal making in a manner which is ultimately detrimental to some of those in most need in our society– like the families waiting for housing in north Belfast.
SDLP’s north Belfast MLA Alban Maginness released a statement welcoming PPR’s report. Let’s hope the SDLP will start exercising their political power at City Council, on the Harbour Commission, on the NIHE Board, in the Assembly and on the Executive to have this disgraceful situation sorted. Sinn Fein have yet to do so, but it’s likely they would concur with Maginness’ sentiments, in which case the challenge must be put to them as well.
But as PPR’s reports shows, it’s not an issue that is going to go away until it is sorted.