Belfast Telegraph

Exclusive: 2,000 households forced out of their homes- paramilitaries blamed for 73% of cases

Stormont impasse blamed as it's revealed terror gangs linked to most cases of people driven from homes by threats

By Donna Deeney and Adrian Rutherford

Hundreds of families are still being forced from their homes every year because of intimidation by paramilitaries.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) has dealt with more than 2,000 cases in the last three-and-a-half years where people said they have been left homeless due to victimisation.

In almost three-quarters of incidents the reason cited was threats from paramilitaries.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds have also been paid out by the NIHE in grant aid to assist families who have been forced from their homes to find new accommodation.

The figures - two decades after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement - have been branded "alarming".

Former Justice Minister Claire Sugden said the collapse of Stormont has impacted on the ability to address the issue.

Figures show:

- 2,017 households presented themselves as homeless due to intimidation between April 2015 and October 2018.

- In 1,488 cases the reason cited was intimidation from paramilitaries.

- A further 271 cases related to anti-social behaviour.

- In 80 other cases it was due to racial intimidation.

- Another 135 cases were linked to sectarianism.

- Discrimination around sexual orientation (40) and disability (three) accounted for other cases.

Details of paramilitary intimidation emerged after a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph to the NIHE.

In August photographs of residents in a housing estate at Ballysillan Avenue in north Belfast leaving their homes made national headlines.

However, the figures obtained by this newspaper show it is an all-too-common issue, with an average of eight families a week presenting themselves as homeless due to paramilitary threats.

SDLP Justice spokeswoman Dolores Kelly said the number of threats from paramilitary groups was alarming, and called for the issue to be addressed.

"The rising numbers of households presenting as homeless across Northern Ireland is extremely concerning," she said.

"More than that, the alarming rise in intimidation cases under threat must be tackled head-on.

"For too long criminals masquerading as paramilitaries have been allowed to rule communities with an iron fist.

"These thugs cannot be allowed to dictate who lives where and when. The SDLP has consistently called for a 20-year housing strategy to combat our growing housing problem here.

"However, it is well-known that intimidation cases skew housing waiting lists.

"Therefore, to effectively tackle our housing crisis we must tackle this issue head-on, otherwise homelessness and waiting lists will continue rising."

Analysis of recent figures shows the highest level of intimidation came in 2016/17, when a total of 661 households requested to be rehomed by the Housing Executive - 477 of those making the requests said it was because a paramilitary organisation had threatened them.

In 2015/16, 544 households requested to be rehomed, 393 due to paramilitary intimidation; and in 2017/18 there were 558 cases, 425 due to paramilitary intimidation.

In the first half of the current financial year, from April to October 2018, 254 cases requested to be rehomed. Of these, 193 cited paramilitaries.

In every year the number of paramilitary threats remains significantly higher than all other forms of intimidation such as sectarianism, anti-social behaviour, race, sexual orientation and disability. All cases are investigated, and a small number in each year may not be deemed authentic.

Anyone who has been intimidated from their home can be entitled to £754 under the grant aid scheme, which comes out of the NIHE's budget.

In 2015/16 and 2016/17 it paid out more than £354,000 in grant aid to families to assist with rehousing after they were forced to flee from intimidation.

Ms Sugden, who served as Justice Minister from 2016 until the Assembly's collapse, said the lack of devolution had impacted efforts to address the paramilitary problem.

She added: "During my time as Justice Minister the work done around the paramilitary action plan was actually calling paramilitaries for what they are, and that is criminal thugs who have control of their communities and keep them down.

"The work that we had done before Stormont collapsed wasn't going to fix the problem overnight but it did focus in on the type of activity paramilitaries are engaged in, and that is criminality. The problem is, the money is there for the public services but we are not able to improve them because we can't sign a new directive, and I wonder if that is being exploited by these criminals. I genuinely think the two are linked."

The Housing Executive said: "As part of a process to determine intimidation, we will make enquiries from various sources to assist in the decision-making process.

"These sources include the PSNI and we will ask for written reports from police on any incident, seeking confirmation of any risks or threats that may exist.

"We may also seek information from other relevant organisations, such as Base 2 (a crisis intervention service provided by NIACRO) and other welfare or support groups such as NICEM (Northern Ireland Council on Ethnic Minorities) for racial intimidation or the Rainbow Project (sexual orientation).

"If our staff are satisfied intimidation has taken place, following this process we accept the applicant as statutorily homeless and they may be awarded points for intimidation."

PSNI Inspector Paul Noble said police have a comprehensive policy to deal with the problem.

He said: "Nobody should be threatened or subject to any form of intimidation.

"While there may be instances of people not reporting these incidents to police, anyone who feels threatened or is subjected to any form of intimidation should report this information to us so we can address any threat and investigate.

"PSNI follows a comprehensive corporate policy on threats to life, which provides instruction and advice on receiving, assessing, responding to, reviewing and resolving threat and warning notices.

"A threat assessment is conducted in each case in order that appropriate steps may be taken to manage the threat.

"There are a number of tactical options which can be considered when managing any threat received and the exact course of action taken will be determined upon the particular circumstances of each individual case.

"Where appropriate, we will also liaise with the Housing Executive."

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