Nichola Mallon: Even half a century after Caledon inequality in housing is glaring

Nichola Mallon speaking in Stormont
Nichola Mallon speaking in Stormont Nichola Mallon speaking in Stormont

PLATFORM: SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Caledon protest; a protest born out of the unfair allocation of social housing in Northern Ireland.

Founding SDLP member Austin Currie spearheaded the peaceful protest after a single 19-year-old female was allocated a house ahead of 250 others because she worked for a unionist politician. The injustice was compounded by the eviction of a neighbouring property which saw three children put out on the street. Against the backdrop of gerrymandering and the denial of voting rights, it was a concentrated reminder of the institutional inequalities ingrained and dished out by the state

Housing discrimination was an injustice that should have been ended through democratic processes. But because of the majoritarianism of the time, former SDLP MP for East Tyrone, Austin Currie, knew that to break ground he and others would have to circumvent the democratic process and engage in civil disobedience by occupying the property, and out of this the Civil Rights Movement was born.

50 years on - Caledon Protest and the civil rights campaign

Despite the hard fought gains of the courageous and committed women and men behind the Civil Rights Movement- to which we owe an insurmountable debt of gratitude- the civil rights battle for equality persists, and when it comes to housing the absence of equality is glaring.

The right to a safe, secure, suitable, good quality and affordable home is just that – a right. It is the cornerstone upon which a healthy, happy, successful and sustainable society and economy is built. And yet, in 2018, we have over 40,000 households on the social housing waiting list, with over 20,000 living in housing stress. The detrimental impact, emotionally, mentally, physically and financially of not having a stable and secure roof over your head is well evidenced.

Sadly I have too many testimonies from North Belfast that I could share. One that comes to mind as a stark example of the housing injustice that persists today, is a young homeless family who came to me two years ago for help.

Despite persistent effort, it took two years, two long years living in a hostel, before they were allocated a suitable home. The entire family, right down to the daughter no older than twelve, is medicated for mental ill health, conditions directly attributable to not having a place to call ‘home’.

Meanwhile one short mile from the hostel lies land at Hillview, land that could be regenerated to provide hundreds of badly needed family homes. Instead it’s going to be used to house a car showroom. Why – because housing means people, people vote, and every vote counts in the electoral tribal war that poisons the politics of North Belfast.

Yet unlike Austin Currie, John Hume, Gerry Fitt, Brid Rogers and many more, who were at the time starved of democracy in a unionist weighted Northern Irish parliament, we should be able to use the powers hard won through the Good Friday Agreement to deliver change and build a future of hope and opportunity for everyone. However instead of looking forward to the future, the last 18 months has rewound us back 50 years leaving us voiceless and powerless to advocate and deliver for people, many of whom are still denied their civil rights.

History shows that those who wait for rights to be handed to them by someone else, are left waiting a long time. As those in the Civil Rights Movement demonstrated, change does not come if we wait around for some other person or some other time. We have to bring about the change we seek.