Fifty years on from civil rights, NI segregation ‘simply not tackled’

Less than 1 per cent of housing in the North is shared between faiths, conference hears

50 years after he ignited the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, MP Austin Currie goes back to the place where it all began. Video: Enda O'Dowd

Fifty years after the beginning of the civil rights protests, segregation has not been seriously tackled in the North, the chair of the NI Community Relations Council has said.

Peter Osborne was speaking at a housing conference in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, to mark the 50th anniversary since the so-called Caledon Protest.

The Nationalist MP, Austin Currie - who was among those who spoke at Housing: Then and Now - and two others squatted in house in the village to protest at discrimination in the allocation of social housing.

Their action - which was followed two months later by the first protest march - is usually regarded as marking the starting point of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.


“Fifty years on from civil rights, 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we simply have not tackled segregation this society,” Mr Osborne told the conference.

“Policies do not reflect a desire to do that, and until we do we’ll be having this conversation in 50 years’ time.”

While Mr Osborne stressed that life in Northern Ireland was “immeasurably better” than it was when he was growing up in the 1960s and 70s - and gave credit to the politicians from all sides who had worked towards peace, in particular since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 - he said sectarianism continues to dictate everything in Northern Ireland.

Addiction to conflict

“That brings us back all the time, unable to recover from the addiction to conflict,” he said. “We’ve got to address that issue.”

Mr Osborne described the continued existence of segregation in housing and education as “scandalous”.

“In 10 years our policy is to build 487 shared housing units, in the same ten-year period in Northern Ireland in which about 60,000 houses will be built in total.

“The extent of our ambition on shared housing is fewer than 1 per cent of total builds, is that the best we can do? Ninety-four per cent of social housing in Belfast is still segregated,” he said.

Referring to the erection of UVF-linked flags and banners in a shared housing scheme in Cantrell Close and Global Crescent in East Belfast, Mr Osborne said it demonstrated the “utter failure” of public and other agencies to deal with challenges to their policies.

“It needs to be addressed, otherwise what’s the point of having a shared housing policy,” he said.

Eileen Patterson, director of communities with housing association Radius Housing - which is responsible for the East Belfast scheme - said residents in those areas were fearful and frustrated, and the problem was a lack of housing policy in Northern Ireland.

“We don’t have a policy on anything. We have a strategy, we have a notion, and housing tries to react to all of this,” she said.

“Shared housing in isolation will not work, it cannot work. Shared education is absolutely essential.

“Too long we’ve thought, we live in Northern Ireland and we have Catholics and Protestants, we’ll never solve it.

“We need to look at other areas who’ve had just as challenging segregation and we need to learn from that,” she said.

Paddy Grey, Professor Emeritus at Ulster University, said that while the initial objectives of the civil rights movement in regard to housing - the removal of discrimination in the allocation of social housing - had been met with the formation of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in 1971, about 90 per cent of public housing in Northern Ireland remained segregated.

“We haven’t had discrimination, but indirectly we’ve had people remaining in their same areas and there’s been no real drive to bring people together other than in the token new estates that have been built.

“These are mainly in non-contentious areas, not exclusively so because some are now being built in Belfast, but I think there has to be an active approach.”

Choice-based letting

He suggested choice-based letting, a system already in use in the Republic of Ireland and the UK whereby prospective tenants bid for houses, might help remedy this, though his colleague Joe Frey, Visiting Professor at Ulster University, voiced concerns over accessibility and said that ingrained concerns might be difficult to overcome.

“I think it may well work in areas of lower demand particularly in rural areas such as Ballycastle, Limavady, even Portadown, where there’s actually still quite bit of mixing on religious terms in housing executive estates, but I think in areas such as Belfast where you have the peace walls that would be more difficult to overcome.

“Certainly, in terms of the allocation scheme the original objectives of the civil rights movement have been more than achieved in terms of fairness and equality, but I think the circumstances have changed.”

Among these, according to Prof Frey, are lack of public money, the growing complexity of social problems such as mental health issues and drug dependency, and the lack of a minister at Stormont which is preventing decisions being made on changes to the allocations system and other housing policies.

“In that sense it is a showstopper for anything significant,” he said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times