Girdwood barracks development: devil in the detail?

Girdwood army barracks
Image caption The former Girdwood army barracks site is to be redeveloped

I'm looking forward to Tuesday's Spotlight programme on the development of Girdwood barracks in north Belfast.

Monday's announcement of a breakthrough in the six years of deadlock over developing the site seemed like good news.

However, the way the Stormont parties handled the "breakthrough" betrayed the continuing sensitivities around the project.

Everyone will welcome the fact that the parties have got a consensus on the plan for a multi-sports pitch, indoor sports arena and community "hub" in time for a deadline for nearly £10m of European funding.

This was confirmed in a joint statement from DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist and SDLP elected representatives.

But the reference to housing on the site - long regarded as a a contentious issue, given the patchwork sectarian and political geography of north Belfast - remained extremely vague.

It was only last year that the outgoing SDLP Social Development Minister Alex Attwood approved plans for 200 new homes on the site.

'Overwhelmingly nationalist'

The expectation was that those houses might make a dent on north Belfast's overwhelmingly nationalist waiting list for social housing.

However, Mr Attwood's plans were denounced as "deeply destabilising" by the DUP and were immediately reversed by the incoming DUP minister Nelson McCausland.

So what has changed?

I did my best to get an answer out of Nelson McCausland on Monday night's BBC Newsline, but viewers will have noted that during a brief interview the minister appeared keener to talk about the planned sports facilities rather than to give further details about the housing compromise.

Significantly the new master-plan shows two separate residential zones - one near the Antrim Road which appears likely to attract nationalist residents, another on Clifton Park Avenue, just outside the Girdwood perimeter, which seems more oriented towards unionists.

On Monday morning, the SDLP's Alban Maginness posed alongside other local elected representatives at the site with a giant copy of the new master-plan (a photographer captured the event but broadcasters weren't invited).

However, Mr Maginness's leader, Alastair McDonnell, later issued a statement in which he qualified his party's welcome for the breakthrough, talking about the Girdwood glass being both half full and half empty.

"The housing need in north Belfast requires and acquires a significant element of the Girdwood site to go to social housing" Mr Maginness argued.

"The scale of need is not fully recognised in the announcement and some may argue that the principle of housing based on need has not prevailed when it comes to the Girdwood site."

So the devil may yet prove to be in the detail - how many houses will be built, and will the provision of accommodation match the need demonstrated by those on the waiting list?


Nevertheless, having spent a pleasant couple of hours up at Girdwood, it was impossible not to be struck by the potential for a change of fortune in the historically troubled north Belfast.

The Crumlin Road jail, which I had to drive through to access the Girdwood site, was looking splendid in the sunshine.

Not only is it about to embark on a new life as a home to a distillery, I also gather the Executive is looking for a private partner to run a conference centre at the jail.

It remains a crying shame that the Crumlin Road courthouse is in such a terrible shape given the tourist opportunity afforded, amongst other things, by the tunnel linking it to the jail.

Nelson McCausland talks optimistically about pulling Belfast's centre of gravity north from the city centre.

Certainly, whilst the wrangling about housing will go on, this area which saw so much of the worst of the Troubles deserves a brighter future.

Mandy McAuley's Spotlight on north Belfast is broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Tuesday at 22:35 BST

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