How the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland are exploiting the social housing system
the The ongoing unrest in Belfast has drawn attention to Northern Ireland’s unique security infrastructure, as rioters clash – and even attack – so-called ‘peace lines’. These “peace lines” are towering walls of brick, iron and steel, often with doors that close at night to separate communities along largely sectarian lines. Two weeks ago, crowds of young rioters – probably whipped by loyalist paramilitary organizations – hijacked and crashed burned cars against one of these “security barriers” in West Belfast.
These events raise concerns about the continued strength of paramilitary groups more than two decades after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement promised to bring peace. In my research, I found a surprising reason why these groups persist: the social housing system.
Social housing plays an important role in Northern Ireland, where 17% of the population lives in relative poverty. Almost the same proportion say they prefer to live only in a neighborhood of their own religion, and social housing remains largely segregated. New projects to provide mixed social housing are often quickly marked by sectarian and paramilitary symbolism.
To fight against long waiting lists for housing – 38,745 people at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 – the Northern Ireland Housing Executive uses a points-based system designed in the 1970s. The system awards points to an individual based on criteria such as homelessness (70 points ), lack of electricity in their current home (10 points) or humidity harmful to health (10 points). But the most lucrative criterion is intimidation (200 points).
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The housing program awards bullying points if the applicant’s home has been “Destroyed or seriously damaged (by explosion, fire or other means) as a result of a terrorist, racial or sectarian attack” or if they would run “a serious and imminent risk” of death or serious injury s ‘they stayed at home. From 2017 to 2018, the NIHE reported that about 80% of accepted bully requesters were fleeing paramilitary bullying.
These points put victims of paramilitary intimidation at the top of the list, which can mean quick access to new housing. While well-intentioned and necessary to protect individuals from serious injury and death, this point system is ripe for abuse. Since those subjected to intimidation will be quickly relocated, paramilitary groups can chase those they deem “undesirable” from the city through broken windows, spray paint or worse. Just last week, families that the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) “believed” were Catholic were evicted from a housing estate in Carrickfergus.
These threats are “verified” either by the police or, more commonly, by charities and community groups that have contacts in paramilitary organizations. This keeps the housing estates in Northern Ireland highly segregated, with the Housing Executive (which has many peace lines) tacitly imposing these divisions.
This system gives paramilitary organizations considerable power in the poor urban communities where I have researched in recent years. Loyalist paramilitary groups have been particularly adept at using this power. A community worker who interacts with these groups boastfully told me that no one is displaced into social housing without the knowledge and control of the loyalist paramilitaries. It was also simple, he said, that one member of a paramilitary organization called another to give a “warning” that a person deemed “undesirable” was coming towards him.
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Take, for example, “Jonny”, a young man from a loyalist community, who sold small amounts of drugs to support his own addiction. This had put him on the radar of the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) and UVF, and resulted in both violent threats (including death threats) and genuine violent retaliation – “punishment violence ”- against him. Jonny’s behavior was seen as undesirable in communities, but neither organization wanted Jonny or his family to “benefit” by being prioritized for housing. As a result, when the housing authorities sought to verify the threats against him, they were simply told that they did not come from paramilitary organizations, but from the community. Jonny’s only options for escaping the immediate violence were homelessness or a hostel.
In my research, I discovered that the paramilitaries took advantage of bullying and the point system against many vulnerable people, from people with drug addiction to victims of domestic violence. While such tactics affect a small number of households as a whole, they have a ripple effect: from intimidated individuals, to their families, to the community as a whole. In addition, they send a dangerous message to young people in communities like Jonny: stay tuned, leave or we will hurt you. In some neighborhoods, the mere threat of this type of violence is now enough to maintain considerable influence over young people.
In recent weeks, we have witnessed the cost of such control. While life in Northern Ireland is’immeasurably better “than during the so-called” troubles “, residential segregation and the power it gives to paramilitaries in poor urban neighborhoods continues to fuel the violence, recruiting new generations of young people for this cause.
Although these problems are increasingly recognized in Northern Ireland, they are misunderstood by the British public. And even in Northern Ireland itself, the political will to tackle it appears to be lacking. Following a public consultation in 2017, Northern Ireland’s Executive Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, rejected a proposal to remove bullying points, saying the points are “still needed today ‘hui to meet the specific needs of the most vulnerable’ – while the system itself is a cause of vulnerability. Instead, Hargey is exploring more stringent verification procedures to prevent individuals making false claims from getting on the list. But such an approach only puts the authorities in a pool game with paramilitary members – with lives at stake.
[See also: Stormont faces a near-impossible task in quelling tensions in Northern Ireland]
Instead, to break the link between economic vulnerability and paramilitary power in Northern Ireland, the government should invest in expanding the supply of social housing to eliminate the waiting list. Guaranteeing housing security for all, rather than subordinating it to paramilitaries’ favor, is a necessary and expected step in reversing the influence of the paramilitaries and laying the foundations for lasting peace.
Kaitlin M. Ball PhD is a lawyer and legal researcher at the University of Cambridge specializing in post-Patten security in Northern Ireland.