DIVER AliceExploring new residents’ experience of contact in mixed areas of Belfast
by Alice DIVER for Northern Ireland Foundation
2 April 2015

This event marked the launch of a Community Relations Council-commissioned qualitative research report undertaken by Dr Clifford Stevenson and Thia Sagherian Dickey (doctoral candidate) of the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast.

The research involved 17 interviews with 27 participants across 3 ‘mixed’ Belfast areas (in terms of apparent or actual religious/political affiliation), namely Fortwilliam, Cliftondene/Deerpark and Ravenhill. Follow-up interviews with photo-illicitation had also been done with some of the participants.

The study’s focus was on those persons ‘doing the moving’ into new areas, rather than on established residents.

Key issues included: trust, anxiety and, most significantly perhaps, new-mover perceptions e.g. of ‘critical incidents’ being seen as targeted or sectarian in nature rather than simply random (e.g. street disturbances, vandalism, flags).

Key findings included the following points: ‘micro-segregation’ could still be a factor, as was the practice of ‘hunkering down’ (not mixing with one’s neighbours); new residents’ main concerns were largely to do with mundane matters (money, jobs, house prices, children, education); couples with children were more likely to meet their neighbours; the need for reassurance – or some form of welcome – via early neighbour contact was important, not least where new residents felt nervous or threatened by their new surroundings. Couples in mixed marriages (and new-movers from ‘single identity’ backgrounds) often tended to be much more aware of incidents and potential tensions, and thus were perhaps more prone to perceiving such ‘critical incidents’ as being deliberately targeted at them.

The report was generally well received by the panel of experts (representatives from the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Housing Executive, academia and the community development sector), who almost unanimously praised the research for concentrating upon a previously ‘untapped area’ and for asking about the ‘how and why’ people were living, rather than simply gauging the ‘where.’

The vision for a sort of ‘social cure’ (e.g. welcome packs and a draft ‘shared neighbourhood charter’) was met with a more measured response, with both panel and audience members pointing out the necessarily long-term, aspirational nature of any such strategy, especially given the problems associated with being an area ‘in transition.’

Wider issues were also highly relevant: urban development, changing demographics (both locally and in terms of Northern Ireland generally), cultural sensitivities (not least over flags and symbols), the loss of traditional areas to ‘others’ (or urban planning) and political interests, for example in how communities (i.e. voters) are divided out via electoral wards.

As the speaker from the Department of Social Development pointed out at the start of the event, housing is about much more than simply allocating or building new houses, especially in Northern Ireland. Issues of history, politics, cultural expression, human rights, and social justice remain highly relevant, with new, added factors (immigration, welfare reform, economic crises) further complicating the concept of a ‘shared space’. Community consultation must be factored in (as the Director of Ballynafeigh Community Development Association feistily observed), to give voice to community concerns and to prevent residents’ feeling that a ‘sharing’ of space automatically involves a loss of space.

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