Following nine weeks of unresolved all-party and governmental talks at Stormont, a group of families on the housing waiting list from across Belfast travelled to Hillsborough Castle on Monday 15th December 2014. The families were joined by guitarists and singers for a festive rendition of the Crosby, Stills and Nash classic ‘Our House’ in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle. They delivered a letter to Secretary of State Teresa Villiers MP requesting her to do what the Stormont Executive has so far failed to do: address the housing crisis as a matter of urgency.
Housing inequality, particularly in North Belfast, has been raised as a concern recently by:
- two separate United Nations bodies
- former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg
- and outgoing Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley-Mooney who last year described the conditions families endured as “not good enough in the 21st Century” .
Theresa Villiers has the power to take the extraordinary move through a provision arising from the Good Friday Agreement, which allows a Secretary of State to intervene on human rights issues.
The Equality Can’t Wait group has previously secured the support of MLAs from a majority of Stormont’s parties with 49 members signing up to the campaign to tackle the crisis in May this year. Housing Executive figures show that Catholics in Belfast are worst affected by the shortage of housing with official statistics recording higher waiting times for this community. In North Belfast, Housing Executive figures show that the need for new and additional social housing is exclusively in the Catholic community. Despite this, plans are proceeding to build additional houses in areas where there is no need, while available vacant land capable of addressing the inequality is being taken over for major developments like North Side, the University of Ulster and City Quays, leaving families behind.
Despite the cross party political support, including from 5 Executive Ministers, a recent response to a Freedom of Information request shows that the issue has not been raised at any Executive meetings and that a meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss her intervention is now necessary.
The shortage of social housing has impacted families like that of Karen Donnelly, who along with her children and five year old grandchild have had no alternative but to remain in a home that is 109 years old and plagued with severe damp and mould since it was flooded in 2011. Karen said:
“Housing inequality means thousands of families like mine are nothing more than statistics – homeless, voiceless and subjected to endless waiting lists. The Equality Can’t Wait campaign has helped hundreds of women and children to have their voices heard by decision makers and more come to us every day. But still the message falls on deaf ears. We want to meet Ms Villiers who has the power to take action on our basic human right to a home.”
Seán Brady, PPR Local Development Worker said;
“Interventions from two UN bodies, the EU Commissioner, the Children’s Commissioner and almost half the politicians at Stormont do not come lightly. It’s a response to the failure of the Stormont Executive to uphold international and domestic agreements. It’s the result of years of campaigning by families struggling every day with the realities of poor housing and homelessness. It’s now time for the decision makers to stop talking and to act on the promises of equality they have all made.”