Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Girdwood (2)

With the restoration of devolution, Margaret Ritchie MLA became Minister for Social Development on 8 May 2007.

There followed a period of stagnation in relation to Girdwood and that stagnation continued for almost three years, with no action, no progress and no cross-community dialogue as proposed in the original masterplan.  During that period DUP representatives met with Margaret Ritchie and we pointed out that the development of Girdwood could only succeed if the adjacent communities, such as Lower Oldpark, were also regenerated - a point that was made in the original masterplan.  Sadly that did not happen.  Girdwood was left for those three years as a derelict site and the neglect of the neighbouring communities continued.

Then suddenly she returned to the issue in February 2010 and that was in the context of her bid to become leader of the SDLP.  The party was holding its annual conference in Newcastle and top of the agenda was the election of a new leader.  Margaret Ritchie was one of the candidates but the outcome was uncertain and on the opening day of the conference, Friday 5 February, she announced:
This brings me to Girdwood Barracks site in North Belfast. Here we have a former military site beside Crumlin Road Gaol, some 27 acres, within a mile of Belfast City Hall. This area of North Belfast is deeply divided and it is difficult to find an agreed way forward for the site. But this part of North Belfast has acute levels of housing stress and more social housing is desperately needed there. I said last year, and I assured Alban Magennis, that I would not allow the lack of consensus on the site to stop development of much needed housing. So today I can announce to you Conference, that I have instructed the Housing Executive to appoint a Housing Association to commence the work to build at least 200 new social homes on the Girdwood site, starting immediately. I will continue to seek consensus on the overall plan for the site but the housing will now proceed. I also hope that housing on Girdwood will allow us to proceed with the long overdue redevelopment of the adjacent ‘Long Streets’ area of North Belfast.
Most observers saw this as cynical electioneering in her bid to become party leader - three years of stagnation, three years of inaction, and then make an announcement at the party conference where you are bidding to become party leader!

Margaret Ritchie was duly elected as leader and we cannot know what part her Girdwood announcement played in her success but we do know that she could not deliver on her announcement. 

In passing it is worth noting that Ritchie described the Girdwood site as 27 acres - so much for her knowledge of the site - it is actually 14 acres.  But then what would that matter to someone who is so cavalier with figures.  Moreover, if she was going to build 200 houses on 27 acres, was she then going to settle for half that number on a site that was really half that size?

At Stormont the following Tuesday, 9 February 2010, Margaret Ritchie had Oral Questions and her party colleague and North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness asked for an update on the regeneration of the Girdwood Barracks site 'including the provision of social housing'.  She answered:
The proposals for the Girdwood site are being developed as part of a wider regeneration master plan, which includes the former Crumlin Road jail. Following public consultations on the proposals contained in the draft master plan, a revised option has been developed to try to address a number of community concerns, including the provision of housing. I understand that the provision of housing on the Girdwood site remains contentious, but I am acutely aware of the housing crisis that exists in north Belfast. In the absence of other suitable development sites in the area, the Girdwood site presents an opportunity to provide housing. Therefore, it is my intention to bring forward the development of much needed housing on the site. Accordingly, I have instructed the Housing Executive to appoint a housing association to begin working on the development of 200 social houses on the site.
A Sinn Fein member, Caral Ni Chuilin,  asked about the procurement process with housing associations and Margaret Ritchie replied:
I have instructed the Housing Executive to begin immediate discussions with a housing association about the provision of houses on that site. As soon as I have further details, I will come back to Mr Maginness, Ms Ní Chuilín and the other MLAs in North Belfast on that.
That answer that Margaret Ritchie gave is significant in that it does not actually answer the question that was asked and we still do not know:
1. when Margaret Ritchie 'instructed the Housing Executive to appoint a housing association'
2. what instructions she gave to the Housing Executive
3. when she gave those instructions to the Housing Executive
4. what procurement process the Housing Executive used to select Apex Housing Association
5. how she was able to instruct them to undertake work that was clearly going to be nugatory

Margaret Ritchie simply tore up the cross-party vision for Girdwood and abandoned the commitment to cross-party agreement.  She went on a solo run that was doomed to failure and deepened the division over the site.  Personal ambitition triumphed over good relations.


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Girdwood (1)

Last Monday elected representatives from the four political parties in North Belfast - DUP, UUP, Sinn Fein and SDLP - issued an agreed plan for the Girdwood site and a vision of the way forward.  The agreement was reached by Nigel Dodds MP, Nelson McCausland MLA, William Humphrey MLA, Alderman David Browne, Gerry Kelly MLA, Caral Ni Chuilin MLA and Alban Maginness MLA.

This was a major breakthrough, after years of stalemate and delay, and it opened the door for significant investment in a part of the city which continues to suffer from deprivation and the legacy of the Troubles.

The following night the BCC broadcast a Spotlight programme about housing in North Belfast, with particular focus on Girdwood.  The programme contained a number of errors and misunderstandings and fell far short of the standard we should be able to expect from a public service broadcaster.

Since then housing and the regeneration of Girdwood have been debated on the Nolan Show on Radio Ulster and on BBC television, generally with a lot of heat and very little light. 

The role of the SDLP in this has been deeply disappointing, especially in view of the fact that Alban McGuinness was a participant in the all-party discussions, but I will return to that in a later post. 

So far I have given interviews to BBC and UTV but so much has been said by so many people that it is now appropriate to provide a fuller and consecutive account of the Girdwood saga.  My intention is therefore to use this personal blog to set out the background to Girdwood in a systematic way and thereby dispel some of the misunderstandings as well as responding to some of the erroneous, mischievous and spurious comments that have been made over the past week.

Girdwood is a former military site adjacent to Crumlin Road gaol and situated in an area of high deprivation.  It is a large site, close to the city centre, with good transport links and provides a wonderful development opportunity for North Belfast and indeed the wider city and region. 

In February 2005 the government announced its decision to close the Girdwood Army barracks and in September 2005 Social Development Minister David Hanson, a Labour direct rule minister,announced that he would set up an advisory panel to  make recommendations on an agreed plan for the Crumlin Road gaol and Girdwood sites. 

The advisory group panel was established in March 2006 and was chaired by Roy Adams, an urban planner.  It included politicians as well as representatives from the community sector and statutory agencies, and a firm of consultants, Building Design Partnership, was appointed to facilitate the work.

In August 2007 the advisory group produced a draft masterplan, which was sent on to the then DSD minister, Margaret Ritchie MLA, who went on to become leader of the SDLP.  This plan was launched for public consultation on 16 October 2007.

It  contained the vision of a shared site, accessible to both communities, and with a variety of uses.  However the draft masterplan acknowledged that there was no agreement on housing and the foreword stated: is clear that much greater consideration needs to be given to the issue of housing if communities are to be assured that the site will not become the preserve of one side or the other. The Panel recognises that the situation in North Belfast is an exceptional one and that cross-community support will be vital to successful development of the site, particularly with regard to housing. The Panel believes that the work started by the cross-community meetings should be followed through with a combination of further dialogue and a cross-Departmental, multi-agency approach to development ideas. Fundamental to obtaining community support will be ongoing commitment by government to securing the regeneration of the deprived residential areas adjacent to the site. This must be done in a way that empowers these communities, making them vibrant, outward-looking and positive, enabling them to play a key role in shaping the regeneration of this disadvantaged part of North Belfast. The Panel recommends, therefore, the continuation of cross-community dialogue on the housing issue, which should involve learning more about successful initiatives elsewhere, in terms of mixed-use, multi- tenure regeneration projects. With time, dialogue and goodwill, the Panel is convinced that a solution will be found to this very sensitive issue.
The key issues identified here for successful regeneration were:
1. an acknowledgement of the particular difficulties in North Belfast
2. the site must not become the preserve of one community or the other - it must be a shared site
3. cross-community support will be vital for successful regeneration
4. deprived residential areas adjacent to the site must be regenerated
5. continuation of cross-community dialogue on housing

In the next post I will look at the period from 2007 to 2012 and consider what happened during that period.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Celtic's sectarian supporters

The New Statesman (19 March) had a review of a new book entitled Celtic: a Biography in Nine Lives, which was written by Kevin McCarra, a journalist and a Celtic fan.

The review was written by Simon Kuper, a Financial Times columnist and author of The Football Men.  In it he said:
Some Celtic fans took their embrace of Irish Catholic identity to extremes.  At an Old Firm game in 1993, I stood amid Celtic fans who chanted in praise of the IRA: 'Ooh, aah, up the Ra, say ooh, aah, up the Ra!'  That day, the IRA blew up two children in Warrington.  McCarra says similar chants are still heard today ...

The IRA and the German blitz

Sinn Fein councillor Tom Hartley is reported in the Belfast Telegraph (4 May) as saying: 'The restoration of the Blitz plot at Milltown Cemetery by the NI War Memorial is a reminder of the terrible loss of over a thousand Belfast citizens in April and May 1941.'

It is right that we remember the loss of life inflicted by German bombers on the city of Belfast but there is one aspect of the German attacks that is often overlooked, especially by Irish republicans, and that is the way in which the IRA assisted the Nazis in carrying out that terrible onslaught.
During the 2nd World War the factories and shipyards of Belfast made an important contribution to the war effort and so it was inevitable that the city would become a target for the Nazis.  On 30 November 1940 a single German plane flew over Belfast.  It took high definition aerial photographs of the city and completed its task unobserved.  Those photographs were put to use by the Germans as they planned to bomb the city.  The plans were completed by the following spring and the German Luftwaffe bombed Belfast in April and May 1941.  The Luftwaffe did terrible damage to the city and around 1,000 people were killed.
On the night of 7 and 8 April a small squadron of German planes raided the Belfast docks.  They completely destroyed the Harland & Wolff fuselage factory, reduced a major timber yard to ashes and delivered a damaging blow to the docks.  Thirteen people were killed and one German plane was shot down over the sea.

The Luftwaffe returned on the night of Easter Tuesday 15 April and 180 German bombers dropped 203 metric tons of bombs and 800 firebomb canisters on Belfast.  The bombing continued until 5 am in the morning and the north of the city suffered most.  At least 900 people were killed, around 1,500 were injured and fifty-five thousand homes were damaged.  No other city in the United Kingdom, except London, lost so many lives in one air raid.  The same night two parachute bombs were dropped on Londonderry and they killed fifteen people, while five people were killed in Newtownards when the Germans bombed the airport.

There was another attack on the night of Sunday 4 May and 200 German bombers attacked the city over three and a half hours, dropping 95,992 incendiaries and 207 metric tons of explosives.  On that night the docks area and the city centre were hit hardest and 191 people were killed.  Two thirds of Harland & Wolff’s premises were destroyed and four ships were sunk in the harbour.  By this time more than half of the houses in Belfast were destroyed or badly damaged and Belfast was headline news in the German newspapers.

The final German attack came on the next night, 5 and 6 May, when three German bombers attacked east Belfast and fourteen people were killed in Ravenscroft Avenue. 

Former IRA man: 'we helped the Nazis'
There is evidence to suggest that the IRA had provided the Nazis with information about targets in Belfast.  Senator Sam McAughtry, an RAF veteran of the Battle of Britain and later a senator in Eire, stated in 1997 that a former IRA activist confessed to him that the IRA helped Hitler bomb Belfast.  The IRA activist said that he gathered intelligence information about vulnerable targets before and after the Germans carried out the four bombing raids in 1941 and also reported on damage caused in the blitz.

McAughtry said that at the time of the confession the former IRA man was elderly and refused to be identified for fear of reprisals.  Nevertheless there is no reason to doubt his testimony. 
[Sunday Telegraph 12 October 1997]

IRA report identified targets for the Nazis
After the bombing raids on Belfast, the IRA produced a fourteen page survey of the damage caused by the German Luftwaffe and provided information and advice for the Nazis. 
The typescript IRA document was entitled Comprehensive Military Report on Belfast and was ‘issued by the DIRECTOR OF INTELLIGENCE in cooperation with the MILITARY INTELLIGENCE OFFICER of NORTHERN COMMAND’.  It came to light on 20 October 1941 when Helena Kelly, an IRA courier, was arrested in Dublin and the document was found in her handbag.   It appears not to have reached the hands of the Germans but was clearly intended for the Nazis.
The IRA report gave a detailed account of the damage caused by the Luftwaffe and identified targets that had escaped destruction.  There was also a map on which the IRA had marked ‘the remaining and most outstanding objects of military significance, as yet unblitzed by the Luftwaffe’.  The IRA suggested that if these objectives were ‘bombed by the Luftwaffe as thoroughly as the other areas in recent raids’, Belfast would ‘be rendered a negative quantity in Britain’s war effort’.
The report contained a diagram of the Short & Harland aircraft factory, a plan of Sydenham aerodrome, details on the British army, the names and addresses of British officers, and a scheme for sabotaging the Belfast telephone system.  The map also showed RUC police barracks and it was commented by the IRA that ‘in this occupied area, they are really a military rather than a civilian force’.
A ‘special note’ from the IRA explained: ’Re the symbol coloured light blue, it may be noted that the road thus marked, is the Fall’s (sic) Road, the chief site of Nationalism, while the square is the Prison, where some 300 to 400 Irish Republican soldiers are imprisoned.’  The message from the IRA for the Nazis was very clear, even though it was not explicitly stated: please come back and finish off bombing Belfast but do not bomb our people and our prisoners.  This shows the innate sectarianism of the IRA, which was encouraging the Nazis to bomb Protestant areas of the city but not the main Roman Catholic area in west Belfast.
Just months after the terror of the Belfast blitz in April 1941, the IRA was calling for another blitz, while attempting to spare nationalist communities.

Other documents seized by the Eire police early in 1942 were deciphered the following year and revealed attempts by the IRA Northern Command to pass on to the Nazis information about ‘the arrival of Americans at Derry’ and the ‘construction by the Eire authorities of an aerodrome at Limerick’. 
[Spying on Ireland p 123; British Spies and Irish Rebels: British Intelligence and Ireland, 1916-1945 p 397]

Throughout the 2nd World War the IRA collaborated with the Nazis and their assistance for the Luftwaffe was part of that collaboration.  Perhaps in future when members of Sinn Fein speak about the war and about the Blitz they will acknowledge that there was collusion and collaboration between Irish republicanism and German fascism.