Equity Diversity Interdependence
Promoting a Peaceful and Fair
Society based on Reconciliation
and Mutual Trust.
Housing after conflict: the challenges and opportunities
Duncan Morrow (Community Relations Council)
McCausland's Hotel, 1 July 2004
In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning (TS Eliot, The Four Quartets). Housing was at the beginning of the NI Troubles and it is at its end.
The goal was and remains safe housing for all, available on the basis of need rather than on the basis of background or origins. Equality and freedom must be made friends in this peace process if neither is to be used as a weapon with which to imprison human beings in the name of some abstract good.
The original issue driving the establishment of the Housing Executive was distribution by need: overwhelmingly under conditions of inter-communal panic in the 1970s, the issue of safety was dealt with by segregation. Under conditions of violence and threat, the primary goal had to be immediate safety. And safety meant removing people from the field of battle, and behind defensible lines among 'their own'.
And therein lies the uncomfortable truth of our history: in the face of our inability to defeat local intimidation, the common sense response was to remove the intimidated from the line of fire – and this has now become assumed practice. Indeed so deep has the 'common sense' become that most of us understand instinctively that living in 'your own' area is a question of the greater wisdom – 'of course'. Any one who challenges it is either naïve or deranged or both.
So presumed has this common sense supposition of safety and segregation become by now, that it is impossible to know whether the current pattern of segregation is a matter of 'choice', as its advocates and defenders regularly inform us, or a matter of 'no choice' and the result of the insidious logic of sectarian intimidation.
But what we do know is this: when asked individually, a majority have always indicated a preference to live together, even as our behaviour has taken us in the opposite direction. So we must either conclude that we are, in the round, liars and hypocrites or something else is preventing a consistency between expressed wish and observed behaviour.
We also know that once a pattern of segregation in which 'defence' by paramilitaries has become acceptable emerges, any challenge to the resulting apartheid means that the unfortunate different other who breaks the rules will find themselves as an isolated 'minority' in a sea of 'others'. That's what happens to incoming ethnic minorities – only they have no segregated area of their own to run to. It is also the predicament of anyone, protestant or catholic who disturbs segregation by choosing to live in a house somebody else defines as 'not for them'.
The hard truth is that when this happens, the public authorities have not been able to protect the vulnerable or isolated minority. We tell ourselves it is benign and a matter of choice, but all of that is a rationalisation of weakness. In effect, the intimidators decide who can live where and when, the community's brave defenders doubling as ruthless gatekeepers. And because in a conflict, many people in the majority actually do feel a need to be defended, many otherwise well-meaning neighbours look on in the face of intimidation, not knowing how, whether or when to act, neither giving nor withholding support to the act but feeling innocent in mind while colluding in a segregationist outcome in practice. And did they, and those who came after them 'choose' segregation, they did but largely because the chose safety and we have been unable or unwilling to make integrated safe. The choice, such is it was in many low income areas of NI, was between areas where we would be attacked because of our origins and areas where we would be defended for the same reason. Of course, the paramilitaries once established, could easily turn on 'their own', but that was the smaller risk. Of course, we can maintain that all of this is indeed a choice and I agree. But it is also true that it is a choice that no-one who calls themselves a democrat, a humanitarian, a republican or, dare I say it, a Christian can feel in any way comfortable or proud of. And it is the everyday reality facing people on low incomes across Northern Ireland.
In the midst of all this has been the Housing Executive, whose purpose was and is to remove housing from sectarianism and to ensure housing on the basis of need. But the demand to provide equal access to housing only possible by bending to the power of the segregationist dynamic. How could it be other when the over-riding objectives were to ensure minimum safety and provide a house. I have no quarrel with that or the predicament it represents. But ultimately any democratic housing provider will be brought back to the glaring weakness which infects all of our public agencies: our inability to let people live in safety where they wish.
In the midst of this dynamic has also stood the Community Relations Council which, all propaganda notwithstanding, is largely still a two-bit figleaf for our collective nakedness in resolving sectarian and inter-group tension in the face of violent national antagonism. And the paucity of something like the CRC is exposed when we endlessly call for things to be done yet nothing appears to happen.
So we need be under no illusions that what the NIHE or CRC is attempting to do has any guarantee of success. What is clear from where I and am sure the leadership of the NIHE sit, is that no amount of mere believing in it will make it happen. But what makes our organisations different is that we are the nominated victims in this society who are obliged by virtue of our founding purposes to 'do something' about it; we 'have to' do something about it, when others 'would like to but..'
And before this sounds like getting the excuses in early let me say that to my mind this remains an essential job in all of the public services in Northern Ireland and I want to pay tribute to NIHE in taking this initiative. But it will only succeed in the long term if we are honest about what this means for all public authorities: for an integrated project to be successful we must ensure fair and effective policing, no paramilitarism, agreements on flags, emblems and cultural displays, access to schools and youth clubs with the support of the church and other authorities who run them, safe access to shops and other facilities, fair local government and so on and so on. And if we achieve our goals in a few pilot examples, I anticipate that any pilot would be so popular that he houses would quickly become part of the private sector through right to buy ad ten we would have to start all over again.
It is critical to underline that aiming for the right to live safely anywhere in Northern Ireland is not a homogeneity project. No free movement system of housing anywhere in the world produces uniform results. Indeed the fundamental objection to segregation is that it, not integration, produces uniformity. Nobody is talking here about 'forced integration' in housing, whatever that might look like. Indeed it is such a red herring that it suggests that there is a frankly incredible willingness to delude ourselves about the violence that defines residential patterns in Northern Ireland and to represent it as free choice – but that is a whole other talk. The point is that freed of the threat of violence, the housing pattern in Northern Ireland would not look like the one we have inherited, and that, I believe is unassailable. Just ask the Chinese in South Belfast if you don't believe me.
This implementation plan will not save the world, but it is a huge, if incremental step, in challenging the notion that what we have at the moment is freedom, equality or choice. By focusing on couples from mixed background, the NIHE may be taking only the easiest line of resistance but it is no less important for all that, because for his group of people the notion that their households are 'protected' by sectarian geography and paramilitarism is nonsensical.
I am delighted that they have taken this step. What is now incumbent is that everyone else does not just sit back and watch the naïve and well meaning fail again but ask what each agency needs to contribute to make sure that these pilots and their successor succeed. Because it is those decisions, not the will of the NIHE or CRC which will determine the outcome. Of course it will only work if there is a comprehensive political deal, but a wider deal will only work if we believe that living together is feasible. This implementation plan is an opportunity to begin to resolve that crisis of faith and a critical contribution to the practical search for a Shared Future – the only project worth working for in this long-benighted part of Europe.