Since late 2012, residents in North Belfast impacted by housing inequality have worked tirelessly on the Equality Can't Wait campaign.

Their efforts have yielded results not only for themselves, but for others like them. Since the start of the campaign they have: 

    • secured the re-housing of at least 67 people out of homeless hostels or unacceptable living conditions into suitable accommodation;
    • successfully challenged the Housing Executive to properly award housing waiting list points to 40 more people who are now awaiting allocation of housing suited to their needs;
    • successfully campaigned to see insulation against the cold and best practice fire safety tests included in £1m PVC cladding plans which ignored residents' needs;
    • successfully highlighted the extent of high rise safety issues and campaigned to see widespread safety repair work carried out to 380 balconies;
    • successfully progressed a wide range of individual maintenance and repair problems and unresolved complaints against the Housing Executive and Housing Associations. This also resulted in the installation of a new roof on one high rise Tower and safety inspections carried out on 20 hostel units;
    • secured £1,000s in savings by residents in unfair rent arrears caused by administrative errors ;
    • secured £1000s in compensation for residents for damage to personal property caused by poor housing conditions and poor responses by housing providers.

    The determination of the Equality Can’t Wait residents to provide a dignified future for their families has attracted unprecedented international attention and local cross-party support for a timetabled, fully resourced strategy to address the ongoing religious inequality in housing which continues to blight the peace process.

    But how has this action by marginalised residents been matched by those with the responsibility and power to end inequality?

    UN visits with ECW residents

    International community spotlight

    In March 2014, the United Nations’ housing representative, Raquel Rolnik, expressed concern that the 2009 U.N. findings that “inequality in housing policy in North Belfast continue[s] to affect the Catholic community” and has not been addressed by the Executive. She called on the Executive to put in place “additional efforts to address challenges to overcome persistent inequalities in housing in North Belfast”.

    There was no ambiguity from the international community about either the nature of the problem, who it affected or who was responsible for taking action to address this inequality.

    MLAs' pledge

    While Minister McCausland spent much time on the floor of the Assembly, in the media, on his blog and in his meetings with NIHE officials denying and attempting to cover up the extent of inequality, 49 MLAs from Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance Party, Green Party, Ulster Unionist Party and NI21 – including no less than five Executive Ministers - signed pledges stating that: 

    “[name of MLA] echo the concerns of the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik, who observed in relation to north Belfast in 2014 that ‘long standing issues related to inequality continue to require concerted efforts’ and pledge to use my powers as a member of the legislative assembly to support a time bound, resourced strategy, developed with the active involvement of residents to tackle the problem.”

    The breadth of political support demonstrated that, despite the still divided nature of our society, political representatives can recognise the lack of dignity afforded to people, regardless of their background. That was, and still is, a very welcome and refreshing act reflecting the determination to challenge inequality which lay at the heart of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

    But for inequality and injustice to end, words need to be backed up by effective action.

    Pledges need to be turned into ACTION

    And here are three recent reasons why:

    a) Minister McCausland has been replaced by party colleague Mervyn Storey MLA. However, Minister McCausland’s flagship programme, Building Successful Communities continues, and seeks to build new social housing in areas of his constituency of North Belfast where the Houisng Executive statistics show there is 'little or no demand' for additional social housing;

    b) Thousands of units for student housing are being planned for north Belfast and the city centre bordering north Belfast. Yet, for years housing campaigners identified this as prime land for tackling the housing crisis only to be told that the land was not suitable for this purpose;

    c) In September Belfast Harbour announced, as part of City Quay’s masterplan, the development of a 4 star hotel to cater for ‘high end’ tourists to Belfast. This is a worrying indication that addressing the needs of residents is not on the agenda for the last big windfall site in north Belfast (20 acres) currently available to address the social housing crisis.

    In short, time and opportunities are running out.

    Whether it is a reluctance to name and deal with religious inequality or a process of city centre gentrification that sees those in most need excluded from the New Belfast - or both - the devastation being experienced by families on the waiting list is the same.

    Resident Action

    Residents understand very clearly that action is needed more than words.

    While fighting personal battles every day for adequate housing for themselves and their children, they also lead the Equality Can’t Wait campaign which seeks to fulfil the promises of the Good Friday Agreement.

    Since the MLAs signed their pledges, the Equality Can’t Wait group of residents went with PPR to meet Minister McCausland in June, who then stated he would meet with PPR but not the residents.  The meeting did not go ahead. They did however meet with a range of cross party MLAs on the steps of Stormont who turned out in support of their campaign.

    The residents then met the new Chief Executive of the Housing Executive to put to their case to their landlord yet again.

    The group wrote a letter to all of the Stormont political parties asking that they use their powers at the Executive table to support a strategy. When they did not receive an answer, they wrote again - this time to all 49 MLAs, outlining their ongoing dire housing situations.They received an acknowledgment from the SDLP and action from the Green Party.

    Where we are NOW

    On the 10th September, Steven Agnew MLA (Green Party), who does not sit at the Executive table, asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister “whether the issue of religious inequality in North Belfast and the need for a time bound, resourced strategy to tackle this has been raised at any Executive meeting since May.

    This has not happened. 

    Two Executive parties have committed to making the issue a political priority - the SDLP and Sinn Féin. Indeed Gerry Kelly MLA recently stated in a party newsheet:

    “Sinn Féin is committed to working with residents, housing activists and rights organisations to bring the housing crisis to the top of the political agenda.” [emphasis added]

    What needs to happen NOW

    If we bring it down to nuts and bolts, the solution is simple and the role of political representatives in delivering action on public pledges is straightforward:

    • use your powers on Belfast City Council to commit to utilising Belfast City Centre land to address religious inequality in housing. Currently, Belfast City Council have endorsed a Housing Executive plan which explicitly denies the use of this land for addressing inequality;
    • use your power at Belfast Harbour - through appointed Councillors on the Port of Belfast Board, through your roles as north Belfast representatives - to push for a sustainable urban village regeneration programme which maximises social housing provision to address inequality;
    • formally raise it at the Executive table in Stormont - the place where ‘political priorities’ are addressed.

    ​For too long this issue has been treated as a ‘constituency issue’. It is not. It is an issue of core concern to the Good Friday Agreement - and one that has drawn condemnation from two separate United Nations bodies. Religious inequality in housing has been a constant – through the original Stormont administration, direct rule, post-Agreement Stormont 1, or during Stormont 2. What does this say about the transformative nature of the peace process?  It is now time to make a time bound resourced strategy to address religious inequality in social housing in north Belfast a feature in any upcoming talks on the unfinished business of the peace process.