Housing, the Front Line in the Battle for Class Unity - Ruairí Lennon | An Spréach

Housing has often been the arena in which class consciousness and militant action has been instilled in the hearts and minds of the Irish youth. This struggle is ever present in the North. Segregation of housing in urban centres of Derry and Belfast remains an obstacle to social cohesion and the unity of class action from both Nationalist and Unionist communities. Stormont, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) has largely excluded the working class from its benefits, with the 1998 agreement only serving to build limited cross sectarian relations between careerist political entrepreneurs.

The Independent Housing Commission for Northern Ireland’s 2017 report underlines the hunger among the disenfranchised working class for mixed housing and the extent to which the polarisation of communities exacerbates the prominent levels of child poverty within Belfast. With over 90% of public housing segregated on religious grounds there is appetite for a mixed approach to assist the need for social integration with “80% saying they would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood.” It is no coincidence that Northern Ireland constituencies have some of the highest child poverty within the UK, with West Belfast having the second highest rate of child poverty in the UK behind Central Manchester. The constituency in Manchester is itself experiencing mass segregation along ethnic lines, illustrating that the implementation of austerity through the deliberate neglect of social housing and an over-reliance on the private market is withholding the potential of a united working front in communities still divided from sectarian housing policies or mass immigration from those from Asian communities to Britain post 1945.

 While housing exclusively cannot achieve social cohesion, it seems unlikely that a united working class can be achieved without a proactive and sustained commitment by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE). According to Savills, existing NIHE stock needs investment of £7bn over the next 30 years and nearly half its stock needs immediate attention. But there is still reluctance to change of status from the NIHE to enable it to borrow against its considerable assets in order to provide the adequate social homes and development of mixed housing projects badly required as a result of the neoliberal austerity agenda. This provides activists with an opportunity to build a campaign for mixed, non-sectarian social housing in Belfast akin to the current ‘Campaign for Public Housing’ in the South. Such a campaign would also call for a choice-based lettings system which, in effect encourages those currently living in or wishing to be accommodated in social housing to “bid” for properties outside of their immediate neighbourhoods to assist cohesion between communities.

Moreover, there are still 109 peace walls across the occupied six-counties, many in North Belfast which experienced some of the worst violence of the conflict. The Stormont Administration pledged to remove all walls by 2023, this is a highly ambitious yet progressive step in easing sectarian tensions with cross-divide support. Steps have been taken in fulfilling this objective with progress being made when the Springfield Avenue barrier was taken down in September last year and a £440,000 redevelopment project for Peace Lines on the Crumlin Road was announced a month later. This proves that with sustained commitment from community groups and a willing working people, it is possible. A recent report found that “62% of the Protestant/Unionist community and 73% of the Catholic/Nationalist community do say they wish to see the barriers removed within the next generation.” Through housing, radical change towards uniting the working class is attainable. The Peace Walls, as the frontline to the sectarian conflict, will serve as our frontline in the struggle for class unity. 

However, as Communists our actions must be conducted within the present material conditions and older generations remain permanently marked by the conflict. We realise that certain communities may be apprehensive regarding the removal of the symbols of conflict or the prospect of mixed housing and as a result, peace lines mustn’t be removed until communities feel safe in doing so. 

Moreover, these radical changes in the architectural makeup of the city is facilitated by a changing demographic in the North. This facilitates a new political direction with the youngest average population in the UK and holding more open attitudes than their parents. This is compounded by the ever-growing secular population in the North, which will go some way in decreasing tension between flashpoint areas. As the post-conflict generation now enter the world of work and the polling booths, the shift away from sectarian neoliberalism is ahead of us in the North, we must ensure that class politics storms through Belfast in the tradition of Connolly and Larkin.

This poses the question ‘Why do we have sectarian housing in the North?’ Sectarian housing is a blunt tool with which the powers of capital break us apart. This sectarian divide was inflamed in the minds of those living in Belfast throughout the proliferation of nonsensical sectarian killings in the Troubles. Those in Nationalist and Unionist communities in ‘flashpoint’ areas often moved into ‘safe’ areas where the risk of attack by petrol bombs and stones from the other was significantly reduced. However, this was a result of some of the most horrific scenes witnessed in the 30 years of conflict that scarred the Province. On the 15th of August 1969 the RUC, followed by a crowd of Unionists opened fire on rioters and burned people from their homes in scenes of violence which left 6 people shot dead and 1,820 families forced to abandon their homes. Over the 14th and 15th of August 1969 5.3% of all Catholics in Belfast were displaced. Now in 2018 as armed campaigns are long over we can develop a united working people in the tradition of great Irish socialists that went before us, to strike fear into the hearts of our oppressors.

In 1907, James Larkin, trade union activist and Irish socialist called a general strike of dockworkers as a unified working class. During which the Royal Irish Constabulary refused to break up the strike action, instilling fear into the Unionist aristocracy, who quickly retaliated with organising a regular British Army presence to quell any action. By 1919, a 40,000 strong engineer workers strike demanding a 44-hour week, in a display of pure economic militancy resulted in a Belfast without trams, gas or electricity for the 4-week duration of the strike. The greatest ever display of the iron fist of organised labour in Belfast resulted in the expulsion of 11,000 Catholics, evicted from their places of work and 1,850 Protestant trade union activists also expelled to prevent such a display of organised labour again. In pursuit of this, sectarian measures were implemented, and Protestant workers began receiving benefits relative to Catholic workers such as access to jobs in manufacturing and better access to housing ultimately to increase the control of capital over that of organised labour through granting concessions to one side of the divide. Stemming from the united labour movement, this catalysed the sectarian divide into the Belfast of today.

Likewise, the political class of the North today aims to divide Unionist and Nationalist workers through housing to strengthen the hand of capital. A green or orange Belfast is a different shade of capitalism and it is a lot less terrifying to the faceless corporations on Lanyon Quay than a Red Belfast. Based on class solidarity, built within the labour movement and expressed in campaigns to bring down the Peace Walls and to build mixed social housing. “Such a unity is infinitely precious, and infinitely important to the working class. Disunited, the workers are nothing. United, they are everything.”- V.I Lenin

From Issue 3 of An Spréach Magazine, Jan - Mar 2019