DUP actions on housing sparks huge row at Stormont

By Evan Short

A report that claims to lay bare the extent to which the DUP is getting involved in lobbying for housing changes in North Belfast sparked a huge row in Stormont this week, with nationalist parties uniting to accuse the party of engaging in ‘gerrymandering’.

An extensive report released on investigative journalism website ‘The Detail’ published Housing Executive (NIHE) documents that show officials were called to 12 meetings over ten months last year with Nelson McCausland and DUP politicians to discuss waiting list figures and building proposals for social housing across the constituency.

One of the documents, written by a NIHE official and obtained via Freedom of Information requests, describes tensions at one meeting attended by North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds.

“They (DUP) were extremely concerned that while these proposals addressed housing need, a number of these are physically located outside the North Belfast parliamentary constituency. Upon reviewing the map, Mr Dodds became very concerned/angry that a number of the proposals to meet housing need were outside the North Belfast constituency – that we were ‘pushing people outside of Belfast’.”

In March the North Belfast News confronted Minister McCausland over his record in office and whether he was working to protect Nigel Dodds’s North Belfast parliamentary seat, which he denied.

One of the most contentious issues raised in the report are documents that suggest in a meeting on July 1, 2013, Nigel Dodds asked for the Housing Executive to transfer control of Housing Executive homes in the Lower Oldpark district to the Shankill District.

This matter was raised in Stormont on Tuesday (May 13) during a debate on housing, where Gerry Kelly said it was evidence of gerrymandering.

“The demand or request from the MP — whatever you might call it — that the Oldpark area should be shifted in housing terms into the Shankill area says it all…..there is gerrymandering if ever you wanted it. The ironic thing is that they did not want the Oldpark ward to be shifted into West Belfast for voting. They said, ‘No, don’t be doing that, we need those votes here. We’ll just shift it in there so that we can change the figures for housing’.”

DUP MLA William Humprey responded to the claim.

“In the interests of clarity and accuracy, we did not ask for the Oldpark ward to be removed. That is totally inaccurate and is misleading the House. It was the lower Oldpark area.”

Documents show that then Housing Executive Chief Executive Dr John McPeake wrote in an email on July 29 that “any boundary change will need to be considered by the (NIHE) board as it is likely to be politically sensitive.”

A statement from Nigel Dodds said the request to move the area was down to practicalities.

“What was raised was the issue of the Shankill Housing Executive Office being the appropriate office to deal with housing matters, including maintenance, since the lower Oldpark is now grouped with Shankill for City Council purposes.”

SDLP MLA Alban Maginness said questions had to be asked as to why so many meetings had been held on the “operational activities” of the Housing Executive – something he described as “unacceptable”.

“He has intervened through meetings, emails, and so forth, at least 12 times, if not more. Those are only the ones that have been documented by ‘The Detail’ online newspaper. That is unacceptable. It is not right that a Minister should do that.”

Addressing the revelations in Stormont, Minister McCausland said he had read the report and said it unveiled some “interesting information” and he had put a link to it on his Facebook page. He also addressed the number of times the DUP had met regarding the housing situation in North Belfast.

“The fact is that I met the Member of Parliament for North Belfast and certain other politicians, and quite rightly so. If any politician asks me for a meeting, they will get it. I met Mr (Fra) McCann and Jennifer McCann about housing issues in west Belfast. If other politicians do not bother asking for a meeting — they are not doing their job well enough by not asking for a meeting — that is their problem. They cannot condemn people who do their job properly. We now have a focus on some of those issues. I am glad to say that we are now getting to the bottom of them.”

 

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