Northern Ireland news

Resident 'could have been killed' in arson attack at north Belfast flats

Stephen Hawkins outside his flat in the New Lodge Road area of North Belfast, which was damaged in a suspected arson attack. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Paul Ainsworth and Marie Louise McConville

A former homeless man has "lost everything" and said he could have been killed in a suspected arson attack at his flat in north Belfast.

Steven Hawkins, originally from Dublin but living in an apartment in the New Lodge Road area for almost a year, says he is now facing an uncertain future after his belongings were destroyed in a blaze in the early hours of yesterday.

Police are investigated a suspected double arson attack. The fire service attended the first fire at around 6am and then attended again at a second flat in the building about an hour later.

An NI Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said the fires were "deliberate", while PSNI Detective Inspector Denis McGaffin appealed for witnesses to come forward, adding: "We are lucky not to be dealing with serious injuries or death as a result of this reckless action. A robust investigation has now commenced.

Speaking to the Irish News, Mr Hawkins, who last year represented Ireland in the football Homeless World Cup in Norway, said he is facing homelessness yet again after struggling to find accommodation, and said had he been at the property at the time of the fire, he might have lost his life.

"I was staying with my partner and got a call saying that my flat was damaged in an attack. When I got there I found that all of my belongings were completely destroyed. I'm left with just the clothes on my back," the 26-year-old said.

"Thank God my two-month-old daughter wasn't staying with me at the time - we could both have been killed."

Mr Hawkins was originally made homeless after losing his job following a diagnosis of epilepsy, and said he had worked hard to get settled again. Representing Ireland in the Homeless World Cup was a turning point in his life, he said, and he soon began a new relationship and secured the New Lodge Road flat through the NI Housing Executive.

"I don't know where to go now. The Housing Executive asked if I wanted to stay in the same flat again and I told them no way. I had worked hard to get to where I was, and now I have nothing. I have no idea why anyone would do this."

Mr Hawkins said the Housing Executive have suggested hostel accommodation.

Local political representatives have hit out at the those behind the attack, including SDLP Councillor Paul McCusker, who told the Irish News: "No-one should be forced from their home in this way and it was clear that those who did this had no regard for anyone including neighbouring homes. I would encourage anyone with information to share it with police. Those affected are now trying to secure new accommodation and are very upset."

Sinn Féin MLA Carál Ni Chuilín said: "I am working with the Housing Executive and local residents to ensure that the people affected are rehoused in adequate accommodation as soon as possible."

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