Northern Ireland

Dean's fears criminality will flourish in NI political vacuum

Stephen Forde was installed as the Church of Ireland's 14th dean on Sunday Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Stephen Forde was installed as the Church of Ireland's 14th dean in February

The Dean of Belfast has expressed concern that a continued lack of political leadership in Northern Ireland will cause some vulnerable people to turn to criminality.

Stephen Forde also told BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday News programme that the benefits system "is not working".

He said he often begins the day talking to homeless people who have slept on the steps of St Anne's Cathedral.

"Sometimes the stories are really tragic," he said.

'On the margins'

"And it really shows you that the system is not working."

Turning to the political deadlock, he said: "The longer our politicians are unable to do anything, the more they seem to be on the margins."

Speaking ahead of starting his first 'Black Santa' charity sit-out, the Church of Ireland clergyman warned the lack of leadership has left communities "less stable, less secure".

"There's always a danger, if people aren't given leadership by their politicians, that they'll sometimes turn to those who come up with easy answers, people who have their own agenda.

"If nobody can make decisions about how the police are funded or how policing is to be done, then there will always be somebody else to step into that gap.

Image caption The dean said his day often begins talking to the homeless who sleep on the steps of St Anne's

"So who, then, is going to make the decisions and how are things going to be taken forward?"

The dean assumed his new role in February. Describing his typical day, he said: "We often enough find that the porch of the cathedral has been the place where someone or some people have has spent the night, and sometimes that is how our day begins - with the interaction with those people.

"In the 21st century, it should not be the case that in one of the most affluent countries in the world we have people sleeping in doorways.

"There are problems with the system when people find themselves without employment and it's a long wait for finance to come through.

"If people have to wait four or six or eight weeks before they receive their first payment, and their finances have been fragile in any case, they can find themselves with nothing."

The archdeacon said a cathedral is "supposed to be the conscience of the city, so if people are suffering in that way, it's important for those of faith, people of goodwill, to seek solutions".

'Urban blight'

On the new £500m 'Tribeca' urban regeneration project beside St Anne's, the dean said that although it "does bring forward some exciting ideas", more community engagement would be welcome.

"Our area around the cathedral has been suffering to some extent from urban blight.

"What I do understand about it is that it is to be a community building project, so it will have its commercial aspects to it, but its also about building more of a community in this area with the possibility of more people perhaps living residentially within it.

"What's important for any such development is that there is engagement with the people in the area who are most affected by it."

Asked if he is satisfied with the level of engagement the developers have had with him thus far, he replied: "There are probably more conversations that we could have."

More on this story