Row over housing plan for old Army base at Belfast interface
A bitter political row has erupted over plans for more than 200 social homes on the site of the former Girdwood barracks in north Belfast.
Construction could begin next year on the site which is close to the former Crumlin Road jail.
But SDLP Minister Alex Attwood was accused of electioneering after unveiling the £20m project, which still awaits approval by the Executive.
DUP minister Nelson McCausland also warned the announcement risks “deeply destabilising” community relations along the key interface between unionist and nationalist areas.
In a joint statement with MP Nigel Dodds and Assembly Member William Humphrey, the party insisted nothing on the ex-military barracks ground will go ahead until there is inter-community agreement.
“This is a clear case of blatant electioneering by the SDLP minister seeking to claim credit for 200 social houses for nationalists at an interface site. We are highly mindful of the needs and |concerns of the lower Oldpark community, which has suffered from sectarian attacks and where the regeneration of local housing has been shamefully held back for too many years,” the DUP trio stressed.
“This is a very cynical move by the minister who knows full well that his announcement cannot be turned into reality as it does |not have the agreement of the Executive, as required. It could be ignored if it were not so deeply destabilising for local community relations.”
Questioned in the Assembly, however, Mr Attwood said it was time to move beyond the “zero sum game” of politics where a gain for nationalists is a loss for unionists, and vice versa.
The Social Development Minister told MLAs the housing need in the area was “acute” and there was now greater wisdom and |maturity in addressing controversial issues.
Earlier, on the site, he added: “Windows and washing lines replacing watchtowers and sangars offers a much brighter future for everyone in the area.”
In a balancing move, Mr Attwood emphasised he had announced regeneration plans for the lower Shankill and lower Oldpark and the commencement of |a £4m scheme to build 40 new homes in Somervale in north Belfast. “This will be one of the biggest new social and affordable housing developments in Northern Ireland in recent years (and) provide the best opportunity in a generation to make real progress in meeting housing need |across north Belfast,” the minister added.
His party colleague Alban Maginness MLA said a planning application for the redevelopment should be dealt with in a matter of months with building commencing early next year — and the new Girdwood houses would ease the situation in nearby Long Streets, just off the New Lodge Road, which has also been earmarked for redevelopment in the near future.
“North Belfast has one of the lengthiest waiting lists and is |certainly one of the most acute areas in housing stress in Northern Ireland. This is a right and proper decision,” Mr Maginness argued.
Girdwood represents a microcosm of the difficulty in moving away from segregated housing, at least in some areas. Earmarking the site of the former Girdwood barracks for homes has long been a contentious issue. Housing in the north Belfast constituency remains highly segregated, a legacy of the Troubles. Unionists have been concerned that the housing will mean the site will cease to be ‘neutral’ territory. But nationalists insist the land must be used to meet the demand for affordable housing.