Accusations of ethnic cleansing as Belfast destroys houses along sectarian battle line

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The Independent Online

Sectarian and paramilitary tensions in parts of Belfast are leading the housing authorities to resort to demolition and evacuation to tackle the problems.

Sectarian and paramilitary tensions in parts of Belfast are leading the housing authorities to resort to demolition and evacuation to tackle the problems.

Later this month, two dozen Protestant families are to be moved en masse from a small north Belfast loyalist enclave whose residents have been at odds with the nearby Catholic Ardoyne for years.

They represent the last remnants of the Protestant Torrens estate that once housed 150 families. Loyalist claims that nationalists are engaged in "ethnic cleansing" are disputed by local republicans.

In another area close by, the authorities have decided to demolish 15 homes early next year. It is the latest in a series of drastic moves aimed at combating blight in the Protestant Manor Street estate.

The drastic measures reflect changes to Belfast's demography that have seen thousands of Protestants moving out of Belfast while the Catholic population has grown rapidly.

As a result, 83 per cent of those on the housing waiting list in north Belfast are Catholics who want to remain in the district. Protestants, by contrast, have scattered to less dangerous areas of the city and beyond.

The houses to be knocked down are well built and less than 20 years old but some have been empty for more than a decade. The Manor Street estate has more than 250 homes, but almost 100 are sealed with steel shutters.

A housing source said: "Most people simply would not live there - only the very tough, or desperate, or almost despairing are prepared to move in."

Manor Street has been the scene of sectarian skirmishing for more than 20 years, with occasional fights that have given it a reputation as one of Belfast's most difficult and dangerous areas.

The street is now bisected by high peacelines of railings, steel walls and fenced-in open ground that provide several layers of separation between Protestants and Catholics.

Today it is a scene of dereliction as the homes scheduled for demolition lie empty, many of them vandalised. Over the years more than 50 houses - some of them brand new - have been torn down.

A local community worker said: "After all that people have come through there's still community spirit here, but we can't get people to come in and replace them. You sometimes say to yourself - am I fighting a losing battle here?"

The problems of living beside a peaceline have been exacerbated by the general dilapidation caused by the flight of many families and the arrival of many single people, who often bring their own serious problems to the district.

There has been little trouble at the peaceline this year - one security source described it as "eerily quiet" - but Manor Street has been severely hit in recent years from a different source. Internal loyalist feuding spilt over into the estate with the arrival of a group of relatives of the paramilitary leader Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair.

Adair, who is in jail, is expected to be released in January. He has a reputation for sparking off violent feuding within his organisation, the Ulster Defence Association, and for quarrelling with other loyalist groups.

Last week, some members of the Adair family fled from Manor Street after intimidation and threats from other loyalists, who want to prevent him establishing a stronghold in the estate after his release.

A community worker said: "It's a product of the sectarianism that people have been brought up with. It's an interface area which means it's been used as a dumping ground for problem families.

"It's a vicious cycle - a lot of families can't get out because they're living in poverty. To me, the people living in that area are very much the victims of 30 years of conflict."

The plan for demolitions is part of a scheme drawn up by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive that will involve a restructuring of the estate, complete with a new road.

A housing source said: "It's all about trying to stem the decline. Anything that is derelict will be coming down.

"There are huge complications that make traditional housing management 10 times more difficult."