United Nations human rights expert, Maria Virginía Brás Gomes, recently visited Belfast and held discussions with local PPR groups campaigning for improvements on housing, employment, mental health and social security rights.  

Ms. Brás Gomes is a member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and will be examining the UK government’s human rights performance in 2016.

She previously visited in 2008 as part of a delegation investigating how the regeneration of the Girdwood Barracks/Crumlin Road Gaol site could tackle deprivation and inequality in the surrounding communities in North and West Belfast. This time she was here in a personal capacity to speak at a major conference ‘Austerity and Inequality: A threat to peace?’ focusing on the impacts of austerity.

During the meeting PPR groups explained how their campaigns had made meaningful improvements to people’s lives. The Belfast Mental Health Rights Group explained how   mental health services had been improved with an average 116 people a month now getting the lifeline of a Card Before You Leave (link).

The Right to Work; Right To Welfare group explained how REAL JOBS NOW had changed Belfast City Council policy and created jobs for the long term unemployed who couldn’t previously access the jobs created by multimillion pound BCC procurement contracts.

NICRAS explained some of the daily human rights abuses facing migrants and refugees including the failure by the NIHE to award intimidation points to families driven from their homes through violence.

Residents from across the city explained the success of the Equality Can’t Wait campaign. The spoke about families who finally received much needed maintence and repairs and compensation and how those who were being ignored on the waiting list were reassessed and rehoused.

All of groups also explained how their hard work and campaigning was met by fierce resistance to change from decision makers at all levels including from Ministers, Civil servants and across the public services they engage with.

During her visit Ms. Brás Gomes also went on a tour of the Girdwood site to see evidence of the failure to use maximum resources to tackle the housing and unemployment crisis. Much needed homes were reduced on the site from 220 to less than 60 after a cross party political deal in 2013. Much needed jobs for the long term unemployed in the surrounding communities had only reached 4 in total out of the total investment to date.

Residents then took Ms. Brás Gomes to visit sites of opportunity identified by residents as pivotal to resolving the chronic and longstanding housing inequality which impacts the Catholic community. The families of the Equality Can’t Wait group have been campaigning for religious inequality to be addressed by building additional social housing where it is most needed. Their work has led to two interventions from the United Nations calling on the NI Executive to address this issue.

Nichola Dikmen of the Equality Can’t Wait group showed Ms Gomez around the sites and said;

‘We are fed up with being passed from pillar to post as we try to raise our families in safe, happy and comfortable surroundings. A lot more practical work needs done by people who are willing to treat us like human beings and listen to our needs. Hopefully the powers that be will listen to our plan of action and sit up and do something for us to build homes on the available lad we have identified. Happy homes make for happy people and more importantly happy children who are our future.’

Ms. Brás Gomes said:

“From my previous visit in 2008 I have a longstanding interest in the work communities in North Belfast are doing to realise their rights to housing, employment, and equality. I was delighted to meet the local human rights activists working on housing, employment and mental health issues. Despite these times of reduced public resources they are an example of how to build a culture of human rights that has the potential to create real change”