Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Man of no regrets

For over 20 years, Ballynahinch man Gerry Rice has fought a legal battle over his family home. He was made bankrupt, his name blackened, his health suffered. But as MICHAEL WALSH reports, Gerry has no regrets. And no intention of giving up his fight . .

For over 20 years, Ballynahinch man Gerry Rice has fought a legal battle over his family home. He was made bankrupt, his name blackened, his health suffered. But as MICHAEL WALSH reports, Gerry has no regrets. And no intention of giving up his fight . .



MORE than 22 years on, Gerry Rice remembers the day it started as if it was yesterday.

He arrived home from his work as a mechanic and his wife told him she had noticed a bad smell in the house.

In the decades since, that smell, and the smoke which soon accompanied it, has wafted through courts, council chambers, the old Northern Ireland Assembly, Parliament, television studios and even Buckingham Palace.

The names read like a who's who of public life. Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, the Queen, Cardinal Hume, Lord Halisham, Margaret Thatcher, Gareth Peirce, John Hume and Pat Buckley are just some of those whose support he has tried to enlist.

'I've had a lot of sympathy, but not a lot of help,' he says.

Since 1979, the father- of-11 has lived in a mobile classroom on the Newcastle Road in Ballynahinch.

He moved there after abandoning the dream home he had bought on a £7,500 mortgage in Carlisle Park in the town because of a persistent smoke problem caused by the use of hollow bricks in the chimney breast.

A few weeks ago the latest chapter in his 22-year struggle closed when Down District Council, on legal advice, turned down a proposal to re-open the case and consider making a goodwill payment to the Rice family.

But the first chapter opens back in 1976, when the sun was, literally, shining on the Rices and the future seemed full of hope.

'We moved into the house in the summer of 1976, which, if you remember, was the long hot summer,' Gerry reminisces.

'The house was four and a half years old and we were the third owners. There were four beautiful houses in the block.

'There were no fires lit that summer because it was such good weather.

'But in September, as the days got colder and the fires started to be put on, I came home from work one day and my wife said that she smelt a bad smell.'Over the next few weeks, the smell got worse and smoke started coming through the walls.

'My wife and I were both very concerned because we had nine young children by that time and we were worried about their health,' he explains.

'Even when the fire wasn't lit the smell and smoke were there. We realised it was coming from the fire of the house next door.

'At that stage I knew nothing about building or houses. We put in Pollyfilla under the stairs at the back of next door's fireplace to try to stop the smoke but we just couldn't do anything about it.'After being frustrated in his efforts to force his local council to take action, he hired a contractor who soon discovered the root of the problem the use of Terallux bricks in the chimney breasts of the houses.

When smoke penetrated the bricks, they acted as a conduit, swirling the smoke and gases around the house into every room.

'We were worried the place could go up in flames when the youngsters were sleeping. It was scary.

'I actually went out and bought a smoke alarm when there weren't too many of them about. It cost £49.50.'But that was nothing compared to the money he spent trying to fix the problem.

In 1978 he borrowed £4,000 off the bank. When all the money was spent the problem was still there.

'I just wanted to fix my house to be able to sell it. But I wasn't just going to pass it on to somebody else in the state it was.

'My conscience wouldn't allow me to do that.'He laughs: 'I suppose it's my conscience that started the whole thing, but I don't see that as a problem.'When Down District Council refused to instruct their housing inspectors to have the smoke nuisance stopped Gerry finally took the decision to move.

His concerns over the nuisance were later upheld by the Commissioner for Complaints, though the council was cleared of maladministration.

Not being prepared to sell the house on and being too worried about his children's health to stay, he went back to the piece of land where he was reared on the Newcastle Road, and in August 1979 he paid £340 for a derelict mobile classroom.

Gerry and his family worked hard to rebuild the mobile, eventually transforming it into a comfortable 4-room dwelling. Since then it has been home, where his 11 children were brought up and his 15 ('number 16's on the way') grandchildren play.

'I expected it to be our home for a couple of years until the situation was sorted out. I thought there was no question we would be compensated.'He continued to pay his mortgage for Carlisle Park for nine years after moving out, but eventually found the financial strain too much.

'On the same day in 1987 that my house was being repossessed in the High Court I was in the county court having a £250 fine reduced to £100 on appeal for failing to move my mobile because I didn't have planning permission.'Such court appearances have become a regular occurrence for the Ballynahinch man and in 1992 he was finally declared bankrupt after the DoE began proceedings to recover £1,900 it was owed in unpaid rates.

In his one-man battle against officialdom he has written to dozens of public figures.

Among those politicians to take an interest in the case are DUP leader Ian Paisley and former UUP leader Sir James Molyneaux. Lately local councillors Carmel O'Boyle of the SDLP and Anne Carr of the Women's Coalition have championed his cause.

Meanwhile, Jimmy McGovern the man behind powerful TV drama Hillsborough and writer of the Cracker series has said he hopes to bring the story to the television screen.

But after over two decades and last week's latest setback, does he not just feel like giving up?Gerry pauses: 'The 22 years have had a bad effect on my health. As you can imagine it has created other problems. I would certainly like it to go away.

'At the start it was a question of not letting them beat me, then it changed. It was as if they wouldn't let me go.

'I was made bankrupt. My name was blackened. I wasn't credit-worthy. I now have a criminal record and for what? My crime has been I tried to do what was right.'Gerry says the next scenes in his story will be played out in the new Assembly. His optimism that justice will prevail remains undimmed.

'All I want is my name cleared. I don't think that's too much to ask.'

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