Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Talking in the East (part 2b) // Alliance // Naomi Long

So the promised follow-up post to the earlier first part of my interview with Naomi Long, Alliance party MLA for East Belfast as well as councillor for Victoria ward and – this year – Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Part of this round-the-parties exercise is to open up individual and party views to a wider audience – so you get to make the judgements and figure out what you make of it all!

In this section, I started by asking for her impressions of the opportunities and challenges that face East Belfast. She kicked off with some of the current changes in the area, starting with Titanic Quarter.

(Naomi) ... we need to find ways of ensuring that as that huge site develops - I mean it’s the largest redevelopment site in Europe - so as we develop that we need to make sure that it is connected into East Belfast so that people in East Belfast can feel that it’s accessible to them and not closed off from them, because obviously as a former industrial site it was closed off … And we also need to make sure that is well integrated into the rest of the city, because that is going to be the future of Titanic Quarter, it’s going to be part of the city centre expanse.

… we are very top heavy in terms of public sector employment ... a lot of people who find themselves in almost a double dip recession sort of situation, where having come out of the private sector recession we now face a public sector recession with potentially people losing jobs ... I think that is a major challenge for us as we try to regear the economy so we get more people out of the public sector into private sector and I suppose the question is in terms of the tightening belt for public expenditure how quickly the belt tightens because I think it is a good thing to get people out of the public sector reliance and into the private sector employment but if you try to do it now when there is no private sector employment you’re just creating a major problem.

She went onto talk about the regeneration of the Newtownards Road, its connection to the city centre and keeping communities connected.

(Naomi) I mean I think Belfast is in a much better shape than it was ten or fifteen years ago; but the Newtownards Road is in a much worse shape that it was ten or fifteen years ago. And we need to make sure we don’t have a sort of twin track approach to development where city centres and affluent suburbs do very well and inner city communities suffer.

... there is a lot of work being done by the local partnership board and with others ... things like living over the shops scheme, shop frontage schemes as well as public realm ... particular sites along that road which are very run down and look in very poor shape, a lot of dereliction particularly around the junction with the Albert Bridge Road and it creates a kind of social and economic precipice on the road because above it towards the Holywood Arches and beyond actually there is a reasonably vibrant kind of economic driver there around the Arches.

I think allied to that we have a challenge in terms of how we deal with things around the interface, and with the very visible signs of sectarianism because I think the other thing that will influence whether people are willing to invest in a community is how stable and welcoming and open that community feels. So I think there’s a challenge in terms of trying to deal with some of the interface tensions.

I’ve been up at Shankill recently doing some of their reimaging programme launches and to see the developments that have been made there is hugely encouraging and I know that there has been some work done around the Newtownards Road on some of those issues like bonfires and so on, but I think we need to start upping the pace on that because I don’t want people to walk away from that area where I grew up and choose other easier places. I would like to be able to see people in that area be able to benefit from what is happening in the city.

Picking up on the mention of “the interface” I asked about her perception of Short Strand’s integration with the rest of East Belfast.

(Naomi) ... there are more conversations that happen across the wall now than there would have been for a very long time. Is it more stable? I think it is. But is there still potential for violence and for things to fall apart? Yes, there clearly is and we saw that just on the August bank holiday when we ended up with rioting where a situation can escalate very quickly.

And from my perspective there is a lot of good work that goes on there day in day out and I don’t want to take away from any of that. But most of it is about managing a division rather than addressing the division itself. And that cause all sorts of social and economic distortions around the interface.

So for example, within Short Strand there is a very heavy demand for housing, but no availability whatsoever. On the other side of the interface there will be some vacancy because people feel vulnerable and won’t live in those properties, and that creates a distortion because again beyond that there’s a demand for housing. So it creates this issue around the interface in terms of housing.

It also does economically. There was a period where because of the extent of tensions around the interface people couldn’t freely move from Short Strand onto the lower Newtownards Road and so on, and that affected shops and businesses in that area. So it’s not just a kind of a good will gesture, it’s about making the areas sustainable and the way to make the area sustainable and services in the area sustainable is to share more and more of them.

That would be true for example of the library in East Belfast. Ballymacarrett library is constantly teetering on the brink. Now we’re looking at solutions to that and I’ve been talking to quite a few people including the education and library board about it But equally on the other side of the interface on Short Strand there is a mobile library. Which sort of undermines the population in that area using the library.

I think what we need to do is have honest conversations with people to say look if we’re going to be able to maintain services what we need is a critical mass of people using them. And the only way to sustain that in a location like that is for everyone to have free access to them. So I think those conversations can’t be avoided when you talk about regeneration and change. It has to part of what we do.

We would be lying to constituents to say we can make the Newtownards Road all that it can be, we can unlock all its potential but you’ll still be able to have this major divide and this fault line in your community. Because that’s just not a sustainable model for development.

Asked about other smaller communities in East Belfast, Naomi pointed out that Alliance voters fell outside “that natural unionist nationalist paradigm” and could be classed as a smaller community. Then she quickly went on to talk about migrant communities (who often “end up living in some of the most deprived communities”) and the older population.

(Naomi) ... the challenges that come with migrancy and it happens in every community there are issues about the receiving community and its capacity to deal with the changes. It’s particularly an issue in a divided community where people are poor at dealing with change and difference generally where they’re hostile to difference ...

The advantage is that in some ways we have been able to find with migration and change that it’s been more challenging for people that the old norms of unionist, nationalist, protestant, catholic don’t really apply anymore and we’re having to think of different ways of dealing with difference and expressing differences and celebrating them and I think that can be good for the wider communities so that’s a good thing ...

The opportunity is that you’re rebuilding populations there that were falling so things like your schools you’ve got young people going into the classroom, that’s a real opportunity to keep some of those schools and services in that local community. The challenge is how you integrate those kids in, often with language barriers and all those other things. And one classic example of that I saw last week was up in Orangefield. I was up at their prize day. They had quite a few new pupils arriving in the school and the principal was saying how quickly they’d picked up the language and how dedicated to their education they were and how that kind of passion for education is infectious because then everybody wants to do it too.

... The other thing we have is a much older demographic in terms of our population in East Belfast than lots of other parts of the city. And that brings challenges as well because often our older people are living in what are seen to be if you like affluent suburbs and there are very few services provided in those areas for them.

... I noticed on Friday we had the car bomb attack in Kingsdale Park, and people were talking about it being one of the most staunchly unionist constituencies in Northern Ireland, which is utter nonsense. There are not a huge number of nationalist voters in East Belfast, but there are a significant number of Alliance voters. It’s quite a mixed community, and actually particularly in that Gilnahirk area. It’s a very integrated, very mixed community. But not necessarily one that you would be aware of or that draws attention to it self. ... So I think at times the perceptions of East Belfast are very different from the realities ...

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