The impossible dream of living in peace

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The Independent Online
For years social planners in Northern Ireland have dreamed of mixed housing: Protestants and Catholics living side by side in peace

Mary, a mother of two small boys, tried to live it: "I wanted my sons to grow up in a mixed area, knowing about Protestants as well as Catholics and treating both the same."

So within months of peace breaking out in September 1994, Mary (she does not want to give her full name) moved with her sons from the resolutely nationalist Ardoyne area of North Belfast to the loyalist Skegoneill, where there were a few Catholic and mixed families.

At first the experiment seemed to work. Mary got on well with most of her neighbours and the elder of the boys settled into a mixed school.

Then, as the loyalist marching season approached, the atmosphere became electric. "They call this time Mad July, but this year it was just insane," said Mary. "My son came back excited, saying he was being taken to watch some people burn the Irish flag and a picture of the Pope. Of course, he had no idea what it meant .

"Then he asked me, 'What's a Fenian bastard?' How do you answer questions like that?"

With the siege of Drumcree at its height, Catholic neighbours of Mary were being burnt or threatened out and she realised her dream was over. She removed her children to friends, and while her Protestant neighbours were out marching on the 12th July, she, too, left.

"I will never go back to a mixed area," said Mary, who is now staying in a Belfast hotel with her sons. "I still have some Protestant friends but I could never trust living in a Protestant area. As far as I am concerned, ... mixed housing is over. Until you face it, you have no idea how much hatred there is."

Mary and her children are among 211 people, some Protestants, most Catholics, officially recorded as having been intimidated into leaving their homes over a two-week period. Others will have left without telling the authorities.

The Housing Executive, which runs social housing, estimates the likely costs of repairs, lost rent and hotel bills at around pounds 1.5m.

Spokesman Brian Henderson admits that after recent events the concept of mixed housing is back to "square one". But he adds: "There are still, in Northern Ireland, public sector estates where people live quite happily together - though fewer than 20 years ago."

An even bleaker view is held by Alderman Fred Proctor, an Ulster Unionist councillor living in the Old Park area of Belfast. He regrets that Catholic and Protestant cannot yet live together. "They are incompatible ... It's sad, it's unfortunate - but I'm being honest about the reality of Belfast today."