Titanic Belfast – now synonymous to the city – is a shining new edifice on a site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyards, once the powerhouse of industry in the north. Girdwood Community Hub is an award winning building which lies on the site of a former army barracks on the edge of North Belfast, which experienced the second highest number of conflict deaths during the conflict.
These buildings will be shown as shining examples of peace. However, they should be also be viewed as warning signs.
There is much for others to learn from the peace process in Northern Ireland. Inequalities in housing and employment were at the heart of our conflict. The duties on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity contained in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement were intended to disrupt patterns of exclusion and deprivation and ensure those who were normally invisible to government were at heart of policy-making in a new Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement purposely focused on the future, rationalising that looking back too much would make agreement impossible. The Agreement tried to make the addressing of inequality a matter of ‘how’, not ‘if’ by lifting it out of the political sphere and placing in the mainstream functions of our public service.
In reality, however, mutual vetoes in the Executive over what are deemed ‘contentious’ issues has seen time and time again political agreement broken on the backs of the poor and most excluded in our society,
Government statistics show that the areas that experienced the brunt of the conflict today experienced the highest levels of social deprivation. 18 of the top 20 most deprived areas in Northern Ireland are in West and North Belfast which experienced the first and second highest numbers of conflict deaths respectively. Girdwood and Titanic showcases must be seen in this context.
The regeneration of Girdwood Barracks, announced in 2008 as a £231 million investment into one of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland has fallen far short of its promise. Tackling housing inequality impacting the Catholic community in North Belfast – an issue raised on three occasions during the last seven years by United Nations bodies - was sidestepped in favour of a cross-party political deal which led to a reduction of 200 homes to 60. It also witnessed the rejection of community proposals to ensure that long-term unemployment, a chronic issue in the communities around the site, was addressed effectively through the legal ring-fencing jobs during the regeneration.
The Titanic Quarter website boasted that:
“with 145,000sq m already completed, 90 companies on site and around 5,000 people already living and working in the area, this ambitious scheme will ultimately provide homes and employment for 50,000."
The Titanic Signature Building received £60 million in public money but failed to meet targets on apprenticeships, recruiting long term unemployed and providing social housing, despite placing the training of apprentices and recruitment of long term unemployed front and centre of its application to Engineers Ireland for Engineering Project of the Year 2012.
Northern Ireland has come a long way since our most violent years. However, human rights abuses continue to take place largely unacknowledged by our political decision makers. Poverty continues to be experienced disproportionately by Catholic families, long term unemployment is concentrated in areas most impacted by the conflict and rising among our youth, patterns of publicly promoted investment is concentrated in the wealthier areas of south and east Belfast to the detriment of everywhere else and paramilitaries continue to exercise sway over social, economic and policing matters in working class communities.
These issues should not be conveniently ignored by our Executive when telling the story of Northern Ireland to President Santos or anybody else genuinely seeking to learn the lessons of peace.