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Segregation was wrong when it was forced by white people,
and I believe it is still wrong when it is requested by black people.
- Coretta Scott King

 

 

White City: An Estate Under Siege

 

Billy Mitchell


Many Unionist residents of North Belfast now, more than at any time since the early seventies, believe that there has been a strategic plan to drive them out of North Belfast. This has been reinforced by the fact that areas like Tiger Bay, Glenbryn, White City, Torrens and Westland have become, or are quickly becoming, small enclaves under siege. When we look at coloured "before and after" maps of North Belfast whole swathes of land have changed their political colour from being predominantly unionist to being mixed and then to being predominantly nationalist.

For the past thirty years Unionist areas have been decimated as their inhabitants have moved out to the peripheral estates and beyond. Some, such as the middle classes, have moved to escape the effects of "the troubles" or to avoid having to live in close proximity to members of the expanding nationalist community who were moving into their areas. Working class unionists who did not have the financial wherewithal to "buy" themselves out of North Belfast, or who simply did not want to leave the communities in which they and their forbears had grown up, were subjected to a planning strategy that deliberately allowed their housing stock and community facilities to run down. This, together with a conflict situation that set community against community and neighbour against neighbour, forced those living in interface areas to move out.

What nationalists call "demographic change", working class unionists regard as strategic expulsion. Their homes were vested, they were relocated and their houses were either razed to the ground or left derelict. There was either no redevelopment or inadequate redevelopment, with the result that people could not come back. Looked at from a nationalist perspective this mass exodus of unionists was seen as their hope for the future. They needed housing and the enforced outward migration of unionists to Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Ballyclare was a godsend. Looked at from a unionist perspective it is seen as a "reddin' out" of the unwanted.

While the focus for loyalist anger is the nationalist community, there is a perception too that certain public sector officials, believing that North Belfast could best be handled on a single identity basis, embarked upon a programme of social engineering aimed at greening the constituency. There is a feeling too that the unionist middle classes have deserted North Belfast and left working class unionists to their fate. Many unionists believe, rightly or wrongly, that the "greening of the constituency" was part of a strategic programme aimed at managing the conflict. In the post-ceasefire period it appears to be aimed at addressing the chronic need for housing by the nationalist community.

A single identity North Belfast continues to make sense to the planners, and many nationalists appear quite happy to see that policy develop. Indeed, for many, it is not happening fast enough and there is a belief that there may be collusion at times between strategically placed public servants and nationalist politicians, who desperately want housing land for their constituents. There is a feeling too that some nationalists have decided to give the process a push by putting physical and psychological pressure on those small unionist enclaves that appear easiest to cleanse.

Nowhere is this sense of "being squeezed" felt more acutely than in the White City, a small housing estate of some two-hundred homes sandwiched between the Upper and the Lower Whitewell. Over the years both the Lower Whitewell and the Upper Whitewell have changed from being predominantly unionist to being strongly mixed in terms of political identity to being predominantly nationalist. A similar demographic shift has taken place in the nearby Longlands-Mill Road area. Consequently, the White City is a small unionist enclave surrounded by nationalists. An estate which many residents believe is an estate under siege. A tiny obstacle blocking the progress of the greening process.

White City used to be part of a stretch of road that was fairly mixed. As one resident from Gunnell Hill pointed out to me, "I have lived here for nearly thirty years, the majority of that time quite happily. People around the Whitewell area mixed freely together. You could walk the Whitewell Road, stop and have a chat, go to the local shops and school with no bother. . ." This story was reiterated over and over again by the residents. There used to be a mixed community where relationships were quite good, but this all changed dramatically just after the cease-fire(s).

Another resident had this to say, "I would like to give you an insight into what it is like to live on the White City side of the peace line. For me life changed in the last three to four years. It was then that trouble was beginning to stir. Tension in the area was raised when peace was supposed to be happening. My home and the homes of my neighbours were being stoned, windows were broken and gutterings were smashed."

A middle aged couple agreed that the trouble started about four years ago and feel that the attacks are becoming more and more frequent. "We have never felt so frightened as we do now because of a large element of the nationalist community in the surrounding areas. . ." Most of the residents spoke about having abuse and threats directed at them on a regular basis and expressed concern about the devastating effect that the situation is having on their children and teenagers. One mother explained that her children were regularly subjected to abuse and that her young daughter was with a group of friends waiting for the school bus when they were threatened by four youths carrying a knife. Another lady talked about the early morning attacks which wake the children and how it was almost impossible to get them back to sleep "in case another attack happens".

A family from Gunnell Hill explained how they had to move the children from the back of the house into the front bedrooms when the attacks happened. The mother mentioned having to "go to bed with the fire extinguisher" in case the house was petrol bombed and spoke about the cost of having every window in the house fitted with laminated glass. Yet another resident who has lived in Gunnell Hill since 1990 said that the last five years have been the worst. "I dread the weekend. I lie in bed worrying what the next weekend will bring. Things happen. Things that I only ever saw on TV - police land rovers, petrol bombs being thrown, bricks hitting the back of the house, kids squealing…"

A single mother of three small children explained that over the past five years her windows have been broken over twenty times. She went on to tell me, "My children had to be carried from my home nightly three years ago because of rioting outside my door. We have had to see counsellors during the past five years and the kids have nightmares frequently due to windows being smashed. Three weeks ago I saw a fella being beat with a hammer outside my house, when I went out the nationalists told me to get into the house. They yelled abuse and told me they'd be back to sort me out".

What really annoys the residents that I spoke to is the fact that not only will no-one listen to their stories, nationalists give the impression that all of the trouble is coming from the White City. As one young mother said, "I am disgusted at the articles appearing in nationalist newspapers and at the comments of some of their politicians frequently claiming all intimidation and violence in the Whitewell area is one-sided." Another asked, "What's the crack Billy, do their reporters not know that we exist? Why will they not talk to us? Do we have a disease or something?"

The strain of feeling that they are living under siege, the sleepless nights and the constant worry about their children is evident on the tired, but determined, faces of the people I have spoken to. As one lady put it, "I constantly sit and watch out my front window and become very anxious when there is no police presence, as this is when the attacks happen". Her friend remarked, "I dearly wish to live a normal life again and get a peaceful nights sleep".

I was struck by the sympathy that many of the residents had for nationalists living under the same strain and tension. A resident who has lived in the White City for three decades remarked, "I am sure that most of the people living down the lower Whitewell are sick of all the fighting, but there is a large section of the community wanting to cause trouble".

The general feeling amongst the residents who spoke to me was that there is an element within the nationalist community who want to push them out of the area so that they can take over the White City. The following remarks sum up the feeling, "This is the last bit of territory on the Whitewell Road where there is a unionist community, and they want us out" and "There has been a slow but steady take over of the lower Whitewell area and we feel that they (nationalists) are after the White City too".

A lady who has had to leave her home on several occasions to stay with friends told me that she hated coming back and seeing the stones and the broken glass littering the garden, "People are trying to force me to leave my home for good, but I couldn't move. I love my home, and my friends and my neighbours are here. I hate all this trouble, but this is my home and I am not for moving".

Another resident who grew up in the estate said, "This is my home. I don't know how long they intend to keep it up (the trouble) or where they think it will lead to, but if it is the houses they want they will have a long wait".

Two local mothers have maintained detailed diaries of events since July 16th last year. I examined these two diaries on 26th January of this year.

The diary of Mother "A" records:-
· 51 incidents affecting her family as a result of attacks on her home or her neighbours home.
· 20 of these attacks were on her own home
· 31 attacks were on neighbours homes
· 6 petrol bomb attacks
· 8 blast bomb attacks
· 5 evacuations from home
· 1 physical assault on her partner resulting in multiple stitches
· 1 school boy killed in circumstances that led the police to charge the perpetrator with murder
· 1 case of direct physical intimidation against both herself and a neighbour while out shopping.

The diary of Mother "B" records:-
· 42 attacks on her home
· 8 petrol bomb attacks
· 3 blast bomb attacks
· 1 neighbouring bungalow attacked by petrol bomb
· The roof of her house set on fire
· 2 evacuations from home
· 1 physical assault
· 1 car petrol bombed as person drove home into to the estate
· 1 school boy killed by person who was later charged with murder

No one, unionist or nationalist, should have to live under such violent circumstances. No one should have to bring up their children under such traumatic circumstances. No one should feel that they are less worthy of understanding and compassion than people living in other communities. In this new post-ceasefire, post-Agreement era of alleged peace no community should feel that it does not have a right to exist, that its very existence is seen as a blot on the landscape or that its refusal to leave is seen as the cause of conflict.

No one is saying that it is all one-sided. No one is saying that people living "across the peace-line" have not had similar experiences. But the people of the White City feel that media coverage of the situation is one-sided, that political validation of their experience is virtually non-existent and that they have even been forgotten by civic unionism. They feel that their fears and their concerns are being ignored and that the wider world of politics and civic society would rather they packed their bags and moved.

There is a feeling abroad within loyalism that it is now politically incorrect to believe that working class unionists can ever be the victims in a conflict situation. They have become the scapegoats for the "troubles" - the 'poor white trash' of post-Agreement Ulster. Thus the media, being the pillars of politically correctness, will continue to ignore the story of those who feel unwanted in their own land. Mothers and children who suffer abuse on the Ardoyne Road are the darlings of the local, national and international press. Mothers and children who suffer abuse in the White City are the embarrassing victims of a new class-based sectarianism that must be hidden from public view. No letters of sympathy from Hilary Clinton, no visits from Orphrah Winfrey or Desmond Tutu, no General Practitioners to spell out the long-term affects of the nightly violence on the children, no outraged protests from the leaders of our churches or trade unions and not a whimper of comment from the socialist groups that have so much to say on other matters.

In the absence of a caring and understanding media I have tried to outline the fears and experiences of some members of the White City community. I doubt if I have been able to do justice to their story, but I do hope that someone listens and tries to understand. The problems of North Belfast will not go away while the core issues are ignored.

 

 

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