Property boom helps Shankill Road to forget the Troubles

For decades, the only way to spark interest in houses on Belfast's Shankill Road was to paint sectarian murals on the walls amid the economic stagnation of the Troubles.

Jayne Farrell did not have any time yesterday to think about the past. She was too busy dealing with a new sort of interest in the Shankill Road's housing - the sort that has turned this one-time byword for strife and staunch loyalism into an unlikely property hot spot.

Ms Farrell, an estate agent whose company opened its office on the Union flag-lined street just three months ago, is at the centre of a housing gold rush.

Terraced houses on the road and its adjoining streets have more than doubled in value from £70,000 last year to £150,000, while developers are rushing to finish a series of new buildings to meet a burgeoning demand. Such is the frenzy of bidding that offers of £20,000 to £30,000 over the asking price are commonplace for red-brick, back-to-back houses that a decade ago were among the most blighted homes in the UK. Instead of murals commemorating "heroes" of banned paramilitary groups and highlighting atrocities, houses in the area are now adorned with "For Sale" signs.

Ms Farrell, the manager of TMS Homes, said: "The market is extraordinary. I closed bidding on a house yesterday where the asking price was £129,950. By the time it had finished the price was £151,000. It is mostly local people and some landlords who realised that for an area so close to the city centre, Shankill Road is undervalued."

The road was the scene of an IRA bomb attack in 1993 which was designed to kill senior loyalist paramilitaries, including the notorious Ulster Defence Association leader Johnny Adair. Nine people were killed in the attack. Now the street is being touted as an example of the peace dividend in Northern Ireland.

House prices across the province rose by an average of 23 per cent last year and are predicted to increase by a further 15 per cent over the next 12 months.

One of the reasons for the boom has been the inward investment into Northern Ireland and strength of the economy.

Unemployment is at a record low with the arrival of 9,000 new jobs every year. Businesses are attracted by low labour costs and a youthful workforce - in Belfast 46 per cent of the population is under 30.

The centre of the capital is receiving a £14m facelift while the city as a whole has attracted nearly £900m of investment since the Good Friday peace agreement.

But it is the one-time flashpoints of the conflict where the effects of normality, set to be tested and cemented next month by elections to determine the future of power-sharing in the province, are more telling.

The Falls Road, the bastion of nationalism which runs close to the Shankill Road in west Belfast, has seen already seen its own property renaissance. Once a thoroughfare of boarded up shops, now almost every commercial property is occupied.

Esther McAllister, 27, is one of those joining the rush to return to Belfast and the Shankill Road. She bought a terraced house in the area shortly before Christmas. Ms McAllister, a secretary whose parents moved out of the area in the 1980s, said: "We left because it had become too dangerous and unpleasant. But now Belfast is a thriving, buzzing place and I wanted to come back. The Shankill got a bad reputation, probably justifiably, but there is still a strong sense of community and the old mindset is changing. I'm just glad to be back."

But enthusiasm for the property boom is not universal. Community groups have complained that private landlords are exploiting rising prices by increasing rents and forcing low-income tenants out of their homes.

Cecil Lemon, of the Community Network Group in the Shankill area, said: "Landlords are buying old public housing stock and leasing them out to people. I know of one case where a guy took a house on a six-month lease and was then told he had to get out because the house was sold. A few weeks later another 'To Let' sign was up."

Troubled history

* The statues of the Shankill Road as a fault line of the conflict in Northern Ireland was cemented on 23 October 1993 when two IRA bombers walked into Frizzell's Fish Shop.

The two men - Thomas Begley and Sean Kelly - entered the shop disguised as deliverymen carrying a bomb intended to assassinate the high command of several loyalist factions meeting in a flat above.

Unbeknown to the IRA, the meeting was changed and the men murdered nine people, including two children, when the bomb went off prematurely. Begley was also killed.

The Shankill Road had been targeted because it was a bastion of loyalism. The area was separated from nationalist areas throughout the Troubles by so-called peace walls.

Chief among the paramilitary groups were the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

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