Nicola Browne: "The doors of government departments remain firmly shut"

The Seven Towers area in North Belfast was badly affected by the Troubles /

Nicola Browne is Director (Policy) of Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR)

“What we have to do is get out of the ballrooms, out of Stormont and into the communities where people live, where they do not have that lasting hope of optimism."

In December 2012 then U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Belfast during a period of sustained public disorder emerging from the Belfast City Council’s ‘Union Flag’ dispute. Her statement urged Northern Ireland leaders to continue their peace-building work, but with a renewed emphasis on people on the ground – those who experienced the worst of the conflict, and now experience the effects of the unfinished peace.

Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) organisation was established in 2006 by the renowned trade unionist and human rights leader Inez McCormack. PPR works to support people and groups in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland to make change on the issues of poverty which impact their lives, and which have not abated with the peace. We have worked both north and south of the border, yet the bulk of the work to date has taken place with communities from North and West Belfast, including New Lodge and the Shankill where the largest number of deaths took place.

While the communities we work in differ in their political and religious affiliations, their common experience is that the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement has not delivered change in their daily lives. This has been most apparent in relation to the North Belfast residents who came together to form the ‘Girdwood Residents Jury’ in 2008, following the announcement of a £127 million regeneration of Girdwood Barracks and Crumlin Road Gaol site in North Belfast.

The residents came from the five electoral wards directly surrounding the Girdwood sites, all of which rank among the top 20 most deprived in Northern Ireland according to government’s own statistics. Two of the wards are predominantly Protestant (Shankill and Crumlin) and three are predominantly Catholic, (Waterworks, New Lodge and Cliftonville) and the residents differed in age, gender, disability and dependent status.

Adopting the slogan ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us, is For Us’ and recognising that the regeneration would take around 10 years to complete, they developed and offered up a process based on human rights and domestic equality standards, which would enable them and others living in the area to participate in decisions related to the vast public spend that the regeneration would require, and ensure it was used to address the socio-economic deprivation and inequality that impacted each of their areas.

This was a model of working which should have ticked all the boxes. It was cross-community. It came out of one of the most deprived and unequal areas of Northern Ireland. The residents’ asks were reasonable and based on the equality standards that are already in place in the law. It was based on the practice of participation and the exercise of rights.

Their aim was to be allowed to meaningfully influence the regeneration and see tangible benefits, such as ring-fenced jobs for the long-term unemployed as part of the investment being made to refurbish the Crumlin Road Gaol.

However, the residents’ felt the doors of the responsible government departments (OFMDFM and DSD) remained firmly shut.

The failure of the money envisaged for the regeneration to materialise was put down to the economic crisis, yet the transformation of the Crumlin Road Gaol continued apace, to become the conference centre and tourist attraction it is today. The redevelopment of the rest of the Girdwood site has been notable for political deal-making rather than adherence to the equality standards that were the cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement.

The exclusion from decision-making experienced by the Girdwood Residents Jury and others like them speaks to the existence of a different kind of ‘peace wall’ than that which presents a physical barrier between the two main communities.

It indicates the presence of a wall of exclusion which stands in the way of a ‘shared future’ in Northern Ireland.

In 2007 Invest NI provided £178.84 million of investment to Belfast, of which North and West Belfast received 12%, the remainder going to the traditionally more affluent South and East Belfast.

An April 2013 report by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee criticised Invest NI as it provided ‘no measure of how many people living in disadvantaged areas gain employment in supported projects’.

These disparities are not only harmful to sustainable economic development, but their persistence is a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, which made law that inequalities must be first named and then addressed if there was to be any hope of building new relationships across traditions.

This absence of social and economic progress for those in the margins risks heightening the current sense of disenfranchisement, which in turn risks an escalation of the disorder seen on the streets of Belfast at the time of Hillary Clinton’s 2012 visit.

Imposing a framework of good relations on a foundation of unaddressed inequality, requires those who have been at the hardest end for 30 years to again pay the price, to remain silent and ignored so as not to risk the peace.

Naming the problem is only the first step. Inequality in housing impacting the Catholic community is acknowledged as being a contributing factor in both the outbreak of conflict and the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland.

In February 2014, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing released the final report of her Official Mission to the UK. The Rapporteur specifically named housing inequality in North Belfast impacting the Catholic community as an issue requiring ‘concerted efforts’ by the Northern Ireland Executive to resolve.

This was the second time in five years that Catholic housing inequality in North Belfast had been raised at the international level, having previously been cited as an issue requiring redress by the International Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights in 2009.

The mammoth efforts of residents to challenge their conditions brought international recognition of their situation, yet little has changed for them on the ground. They and their neighbours continue to live with the human impact of housing inequality – namely damp, draughty conditions which are unsuitable for children and harmful to their health.

The Good Friday Agreement gave us ground-breaking frameworks for change on the basis of equality and rights. What it has not yet brought, as Hillary Clinton alludes to, is implementation where it is needed most, in the most deprived and excluded communities.

To build a sustainable peace requires going beyond the discourse and frameworks of rights, to ensuring people in these areas experience change on the ground, and feel its impact in their lives.