The Blanket

Missing the Point

Billy Mitchell

Thomas Mitchell, in his response to Joan Totten’s article on North Belfast, has missed the point completely. Ms Totten did not say that Protestant housing was not as well constructed as Catholic housing. Indeed Ms Totten does not use the sectarian labels “Protestant” and “Catholic” anywhere in her article and Thomas Mitchell’s use of religious terminology says more about his own mindset than it does about Joan Totten’s.

Nowhere in her article did Joan say “Protestant housing is simply not as well constructed as Catholic housing”. She made no reference whatever to the quality of either the workmanship or the materials used in the construction of houses within any community. What she did refer to was the “lower standards” of housing within certain unionist areas of North Belfast. This was due to the housing blight and dereliction that resulted from planners allowing housing stock to fall into a state of disrepair. In order to ‘encourage’ people to move out to Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus to facilitate redevelopment schemes there appeared to be a policy of allowing houses to fall into a state of disrepair. Rather than refurbish and upgrade existing housing stock the policy was to let it deteriorate to such a state that the people had no option but to move.

The reluctance of many unionists to move out of the communities in which they, and their forbears, had been raised was based on the premise that they may not be able to return - a lesson well learned from the “Rape of the Shankill”. In most cases this is exactly what did happen. The new build that replaced the old fell far short of the need in terms of quantity. Joan cited White City as one example where housing stock was reduced by several hundred homes. Another example is that of Tiger Bay where some seven hundred houses were demolished to be replaced with a business park and other commercial property. The actual quality of materials and workmanship used to build the new houses is no better or worse than that used in any other community.

Neither the policy of strategic dereliction nor the inadequate redevelopment policies of the planners can be laid at the door of the paramilitaries. Indeed if the paramilitaries regarded redevelopment schemes as a lucrative source of income one would have thought that they would have wanted more, not less, houses. The more houses the longer the contract. The longer the contract the longer the money comes in. The same logic must be applied to any suggestion that the paramilitaries were responsible for the dereliction and blight that resulted from allowing housing stock to deteriorate. If you are in the business of racketeering there is no money to be had from derelict houses. Clearly it would have been in the best financial interests of the paramilitaries to have encouraged refurbishment and opposed dereliction.

But then, for some people, if the Lagan started to flow backwards, the paramilitaries would get the blame. Isn’t it great having a scapegoat!

Joan’s reference to housing standards was simply to answer allegations, often made at community level, that people in unionist communities enjoyed better housing than people in nationalist communities. Housing is a major problem for both communities in North Belfast and, given the political geography of the constituency, housing becomes a territorial problem, especially for those living in interface communities. This is not primarily a paramilitary problem, it is a community problem that must be addressed through both intra and inter community dialogue. Perhaps if Thomas Mitchell had have been as deeply involved in the community development process within unionist communities as Joan Totten has been these past fifteen years or so he would have been less anxious to respond in so negative a manner.

No one working the community sector will deny that there have been, and still are, people engaged in collecting ‘protection’ money from building sites, and those of us who work in the community sector know only too well the adverse effects that this has on community and economic regeneration. We encounter it on a daily basis as part of our work and we know that there are other major players involved as well as those alleged to be linked to the paramilitaries. What is more important we are attempting to develop strategic ways of addressing these activities and their effects on our communities, and we probably know more than most the degree of success that is being achieved. In a great number of cases key paramilitary figures and their political confidantes have assisted community activists in addressing many of these socially harmful activities. So yes, there is a problem, but those problems are being addressed through positive action on the ground. That could well be the key difference between people like Joan Totten and Thomas Mitchell - positive action versus negative words.

It is easy to put finger to keyboard to highlight harmful activities with sweeping statements and wide generalisations, it is quite another thing to quietly and progressively work within and across the various communities and sectors to try and address such activities. Making statements without taking effective remedial action amounts to nothing more than empty words and words alone do not resolve problems - it takes positive action to do that. Indeed mere words without remedial action is as much an affront to human decency as the activities that are the subject of those words. Thomas Mitchell’s response to Joan Totten makes no constructive contribution whatever to the debate about the issues raised in her article. One wonders why he bothered.



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