David McKittrick: Protestant exodus creates new source of tension

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The Independent Online

The plight of Manor Street and Torrens illustrate the depth of the social and housing problems affecting many areas of north Belfast, where the overall reduction in violence has done little to improve the trouble spots.

Formidable peacelines divide many areas, but the problems on each side of the high walls are different.

On the Protestant side there is much vacant space which could be built on, while many modern homes lie empty. Meanwhile, many Catholic areas are described as "bursting at the seams". This is due to demographic changes that have seen thousands of Protestants moving out of Belfast to satellite towns. At the same time the Catholic population, which has grown rapidly, has stayed.

As a result, 83 per cent of those on the housing waiting list in north Belfast are Catholics. This is seen graphically in all the empty Manor Street properties, while across the way Catholics live right up against the peaceline.

One large home close to the Catholic side is for sale. The estate agent, who appears to have a sense of humour, describes it as "holding an excellent site within this increasingly popular location".

The phenomenon of Catholic growth lies behind many of the local outbreaks of conflict in recent years, such as the Holy Cross school dispute and the marching controversies.

When Catholics start to move into previously Protestant areas, loyalist groups often resort to intimidatory tactics to keep them out. Loyalists claim there is aggressive Catholic expansion, while Catholics tend to view the trend as simply a search for better and less crowded housing.

The apparently logical answer to this stark imbalance in housing need is for Catholics to move into Protestant areas. But this is almost universally regarded as madness. The only alternative seems to be to maintain the conflict at as low a level as possible.

A determined attempt to achieve this will be made in Manor Street, but this approach has not worked in Torrens, which will be vacated by the remaining residents later this month.

The big local question is whether the Torrens homes will then be allocated to Catholics, a move which is bound to be denounced by Protestant representatives.

The reality is that many people in these disputed areas have a miserable lifestyle, living behind protective grills on their windows and doors.

Separation between the two communities is probably at its highest ever levels, the Housing Executive acknowledging that 98 per cent of working-class Belfast is now strictly segregated by religion.

But while much of the segregation has happened voluntarily, the phenomenon in north Belfast has been accompanied by violence and conflict.

The north of the city has been a permanent low-level battlefield, with advances and defeats measured in terms of streets and sometimes individual houses. The battle of the demographics shows no signs of ending.