Empty Homes Pilot Exercise
Northern Ireland Assembly
Nelson McCausland (DUP)
I assure the Member that the Member for Strangford has not stolen his thunder. With the Speaker’s permission, I will answer questions 5 and 7 together, as both relate to the empty homes pilot exercise in north and east Belfast. The empty homes pilot exercise, which I have asked the Housing Executive to carry out, is under way in the Fortwilliam and Upper Newtownards Road areas of Belfast. It will investigate the possibilities for and test the merits and effectiveness of various interventions to bring empty homes back into use.
The two areas were selected because of their location, demographic, level of housing demand, the number of empty homes and the variance in condition of the empty properties. That will allow the full range of interventions to be assessed. In both areas, there is potential to make a measurable positive impact on empty properties, particularly in the private sector. There is also the potential to harness local community involvement and support, including through partnership with other statutory and community groups. The various interventions include publicity, advice and signposting; practical help, such as grants and loans; and the threat and use of enforcement action. Work will be carried out by the Housing Executive. Relevant interventions will be identified by the end of this month, and necessary actions will be planned.
The results from the pilots will inform a new empty homes action plan for Northern Ireland. I am determined to maximise all opportunities to meet social, and other, housing need and to reduce blight. That will be an integral part of the forthcoming housing strategy.
Nelson McCausland (DUP)
I thank the Member for the question. It is worth reminding ourselves that an empty homes action plan has been ongoing since 2007. Although there has been limited progress on the management of Housing Executive and housing association empty homes, the same cannot be said for private sector empty properties. Progress in that sector has been very disappointing, not least because the Housing Executive has limited knowledge of or control over those who own the homes. The Housing Executive has done a lot of work since 2007 to identify and survey empty houses and to make contact with owners. However, the results of such action have so far been disappointing.
Since coming into office, I have been determined to maximise all opportunities to meet housing need, reduce blight and tackle antisocial behaviour. I tasked officials to work with their colleagues in the Housing Executive to learn from approaches that are used in other jurisdictions and to test those in two pilot areas. As I said, I expect the results of phase 1, which will inform a revised action plan, by the end of this month.
Mitchel McLaughlin (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that housing provision, with which he is grappling, is a very sensitive issue. Does he acknowledge that there is some concern about the selection of those two locations, given the long-established patterns of social stress and need elsewhere in Belfast?
Nelson McCausland (DUP)
The choice of the areas was determined largely by having, in a small concentrated area, the sort of mixture of issues for which we needed to get a very informative pilot scheme. As I said, those areas were chosen because of their location, the demographic, the level of housing demand, the number of empty homes they have and the variance in conditions of the empty properties. In the Fortwilliam pilot area, which is bounded by Fortwilliam Parade, Somerton Road and Skegoneill Avenue, there are 22 empty houses in a very small space. Three of those houses have transferred to Trinity Housing, ownership details are known for seven, the details are still unknown for a further seven properties, and the remaining five are up for sale or rent. So, it is about getting that mixture of properties that can be transferred to housing associations quickly; properties that we know the ownership of and that, therefore, you can work on; those of which you do not know the ownership, meaning that there is work to be done on how you find that out as quickly as possible; and finding out what the turnover in sale or rental is in that area. The figures for the Upper Newtownards Road pilot are not dissimilar. So, the decision was based on the nature of the vacancies rather than on the overall housing need in an area.
Debate resumed on amendment to motion:
That this Assembly acknowledges the progress that has been made in locating the remains of disappeared victims; recognises the work of the families, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, WAVE Trauma Centre and others in achieving that progress; notes that some families are still waiting; and calls on anyone with information which might help in the location of the remains to share that information with the commission, through whatever means they choose, without further delay. — [Mr D Bradley]
Which amendment was:
Leave out all after “waiting;” and insert
“and calls on the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains to make clear what more can be done, and by whom, to bring the comfort of recovery to the remaining families.” — [Mr Nesbitt]
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
With regard to this issue, many of us rise to speak with a lot of sadness in our hearts as we discuss members of families whose remains cannot be obtained for a proper Christian burial. Those of us who have followed coffins of loved ones and seen their burials have seen the heartfelt sympathy and outpourings that take place as people do what is normal in the course of life. Indeed, in what we refer to as the majority of our religion, Christian patterns, the same as in other cultures, the burial and sanctity of human remains. It is in that context that I speak in this debate.
The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains was established in April 1999. Its objective was to locate the remains of those abducted, murdered and secretly buried by paramilitary groups during the previous 30 years. It is worthwhile stating, though some indeed may have the temerity to suggest otherwise, that the abductions and murders were the primary human rights violations in those cases. Denying the families the ability to give their loved ones a Christian burial added insult to the original injury.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Others have shared time with families and listened to their emotions. I can reflect on Mrs McVeigh of Donaghmore and members of her family, who I have been with on a number of occasions. Her young son, Columba, was taken from her and abducted. Other members of the House will have shared the same emotions with her and been with her as that poor woman pined her way to her grave, thinking of her young son taken from her by the Provisional IRA.
Thirteen years later, nine bodies have been recovered. Those nine families have at least been able to bury the remains of their loved ones, but there are now 16 names on the commission’s list of victims. When the commission was created, there were fewer names on the list, but the Provisional IRA has since remembered some more people whom it abducted, murdered and secretly buried. The attentions of the press aided the recovery of those particular memories. The Provisionals have now admitted responsibility for 13 of the 16 victims, but they are also prime candidates for responsibility in the unattributed cases.
The commission was created to allow information to be given confidentially which, it was hoped, would lead to the recovery of those victims’ remains. It has been partially successful. With the help of the efforts of the families of victims and organisations such as the WAVE Trauma Centre, the locations of nine bodies have been identified and those remains recovered. However, the confidentiality which the commission guarantees also protects those who come forward to help locate the remains of victims. The information, and any evidence which is obtained as a result, can be inadmissible in criminal proceedings. Forensic investigation of that evidence is restricted, and the information can be used only to facilitate the location of the remains to which that information relates. Given those protections, granted by both the Irish and British Governments, it is perhaps surprising that more information has not been brought forward and that more victims’ remains have not been located by now, giving release to their families and the dignity of a Christian burial to those remains.
However, the commission remains committed to its objective. The families of the victims whose remains are still to be located cannot grieve properly until that is achieved.
I will begin by echoing the plea made by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield in February of this year, when the commission made a presentation to the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, when he said:
“I would voice a fervent appeal, on behalf of those whose loved ones have disappeared without trace, that those who can offer information about their fate and where bodies may lie should now do so. I realise that many of those in possession of such information may fear the risk of inculpating themselves, but I am sure cast-iron arrangements could be made, if necessary through trusted intermediaries, to report such information anonymously and in confidence. Many of the relatives have faced up long ago to the probability that a loved one has been killed, but it is one of the most fundamental of human instincts to seek certain knowledge of the fate of a husband or wife, son or daughter, brother or sister. Common humanity cries out for this modest act of mercy.”
Those words were, I think, spoken with sincerity and were reflected by the contributions of Members this afternoon. It is remarkable, given that there were so many commemorations over the weekend and today for the victims of a disaster some 100 years ago and memorials recently opened, that those people have yet to have the most basic of memorials granted to them; that is, a gravestone or headstone that will mark the spot where their loved one is buried.
I want to pick up on Mr Glone’s plea about information and those comments of Mr Bloomfield, because the commission went on to talk about those who were responsible or who may have information. Some concern is voiced in some quarters about the work of Boston College, its interviews and the requirement that is now being made upon Boston College for those tapes to be given to the PSNI. The commission made a commitment at that meeting, which states:
“As our commissioners have stated, our activity is not currently time-limited. Once we have finished the active phase, the structure will remain in place … The hot topic at the moment is the future security of Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, ICLVR, records. I have no doubt that this has been brought about by the recent activity in connection with the Boston College archives. We want to make it crystal clear that the commission’s records will always be retained by the commission and will never be passed on to any other body or organisation. They are safe and secure for the future.”
As Mr McGlone said, and, indeed, my colleague Mr Bradley said in his opening remarks —
William Humphrey (DUP)
I thank the Member for giving way. Earlier in the debate, the Member will have heard contributions from Sinn Féin Members, when Ms Ruane said that there should be no hierarchy of victims. We all very much agree with that, given the contribution of Members in the debate earlier about Titanic. However, she and Mr McLaughlin also said that anyone with any information should pass it to the authorities. Indeed, Mr McLaughlin said that anyone who owned land and had any information should pass it to the authorities.
Is it not regrettable that that encouragement did not come from Sinn Féin all those years ago? Indeed, tragically, members of the general public who did have that information could not have passed it on because we know the inevitable consequences.
I was going to remark, Mr Humphrey, that, unfortunately, not only did families lose their loved one but their character was subsequently assassinated in the immediate aftermath. That still lingers. There was also a wider fear in the community for anyone seen to be associated with the families of some of the victims — a fear of retaliation. That remark and comment of yours is well made.
Unfortunately, I think Ms Ruane said earlier that there should be no political point-scoring and no ambiguity. I am not having any ambiguity on this matter. The crime of the disappeared stands above all the brutality of 35 years of the conflict whereby people have been denied their most basic rights. It is regarded in international law as a war crime. It is regrettable that in our peace process, in order to move society forward, we have had to not quite turn a blind eye but make some allowances whereby some people who are responsible will not be brought to justice. One of the things that the families are quite clear on is that that is not their intent. Mr Bradley was quite clear in his contribution that today’s debate is about urging those people, particularly those who might have a conscience and might wish to make some level of peace with their maker before they face their own death, to assist the commission and the families in locating the remains of any of the remaining seven people who have disappeared.
There are those who talk about human rights, and it is quite noticeable that some of those people are from organisations that were the greatest abusers of human rights in the North over the past 40 years. I would have been very interested to hear a conversation that some might have had with Councillor Madame Liu Yandong, because she might have had a few questions to ask some of the people who were making remarks to her.
Nonetheless, today’s debate is about trying to find closure for the families who have yet to have their loved ones’ remains returned to them.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
There is nothing about terrorism and the implementation of terrorism that is anything but cruel. Yet, within all of that, the taking of someone, the cold-blooded murder of them and then, instead of leaving them by the side of the road, as was done in so many cases, secretly burying them, going through a process of denying involvement and giving no assistance to the search over decades for their bodies has to be one of the most cruel acts associated with the implementation of terrorism.
It is of those cruel acts that we speak today. Each one of them infamous, but perhaps the one with the greatest infamy was the murder of Jean McConville, which epitomises much of all of that. In this debate, we had an opportunity for some Members to put right wrongs of the past and do the decent thing in respect of past utterances.
We had Mr McLaughlin’s attention drawn to the fact that in 2005 he shamefully said — shamefully said — that the murder of Jean McConville was not a criminal act. If it was not a criminal act, then it was, in Mr McLaughlin’s view, a lawful act. It was one or the other. Patently, today, in his view, because of the refuge he has taken in obfuscating and avoiding the issue, it is still a lawful act. That speaks much, and in far greater volumes than I could ever speak, about the heart of those who sit on the Benches of Sinn Féin. To this day, they patently believe that the callous, cruel and vicious murder of Jean McConville was a justified and lawful act. Why would they think that? Because of who perpetrated it. Because in their twisted and perverse minds, the acts of the IRA were lawful acts, justified acts, acts or war or whatever perverse way in which they seek to describe them. That is the shame of this debate: there are Members in this House who, to this very day, hold to that perverse Provo mantra that what the IRA did was right and justified, because, in their eyes, it was the lawful authority. There was nothing right, there was nothing justified and there was nothing justifiable about the vile, vicious and cruel murder of Jean McConville. Maybe, of course, it is because that murder touches right at the heart of Sinn Féin, if we are to believe what appears to be in the Boston library, namely the utterances from the grave of Mr Hughes and Dolores — the lady whose name I have forgotten.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
Dolores Kelly — Dolores Price; sorry. She tells it as it is, it seems, and says that she drove Jean McConville to the place where she was murdered as a member of a unit presided over by the current president of Sinn Féin.
Lord Morrow (DUP)
Does the Member accept that it is worth noting that, when Jean McConville was murdered, 12 IRA people, both males and females, were dispatched and one single bullet was put through the back of her head?
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
Yes indeed, and dispatched by whom? One of the questions that hangs over the House is this: who controlled the unit that decided that Jean McConville would die? Is that part of the reason why Mr McLaughlin cannot bring himself to say that it was a wrong act, an unlawful act, a criminal act, a terrorist act, a vile and cruel act, and why, to this day, he hugs the IRA mantra that it was not a criminal act but a lawful act? That tells me all that I need to know of the party that sits on those Benches, and it is why, in my mind, they are still unfit for government.
Tom Elliott (UUP)
I thank Members for their contributions today. In particular, I pay tribute to Mr Bradley and his SDLP colleagues for bringing forward the motion. I am pleased that they will accept our amendment, which we believe is helpful. As Mr Nesbitt outlined, it was tabled to move this on to another stage. I also applaud and pay tribute to the families of the disappeared. I sometimes struggle with the term “the disappeared”. I often wonder whether there is not a better term that we could use. I am sure that others in the Chamber have thought about that too, but clearly we have not come up with anything. Those families have endured something in this lifetime that I do not think any of the rest of us have had to endure.
As I have said on many occasions, one of the most difficult jobs that I have had to do is to go to the home of a family of someone who has been murdered by terrorists and see the difficulty that they face in the following years. However, as Mr Bradley outlined, many of those people have not even had the opportunity to hold their wake and remember their loved ones. As my party colleague Mr Nesbitt pointed out, they have not even had the opportunity to go and stand at the graveside of their family member at Christmas, or at any other time.
Some words that have been said here today need to be reiterated: human decency, respect and compassion. I must say that that is far from the minds of the people who carried out these dastardly acts and those who still openly and bluntly refuse to give the information that may allow the remains of the people who were so brutally taken and murdered to be returned to their families. However, that would go against the grain of justification. Mr Allister outlined some of Mr McLaughlin’s comments in years gone by. Down the years, many have attempted to justify not only the taking and murdering of these people, but the entire murderous campaign that was carried out over three or four decades. I do not believe that there can be any justification. It is far from the human decency, respect and compassion that my colleagues, particularly Ross Hussey, outlined. Where, in a country that is supposed to hold dear the Christian values that we all, or many of us, are supposed to have, are those Christian values today? Where are the Christian values of those in the IRA who took people from their loved ones and murdered them? Is it not time to come forward and give information? Is it not time for the independent commission to speak, because I believe that it knows the identities of some who can help?
That is why we tabled the amendment. I know that Mr Lunn may not be happy with it, but we have discussed and raised those issues before. It is time to move to another level. If we are truly moving into a new phase of Northern Ireland and into a new political realm, it is time for the likes of Mr McLaughlin, who has obviously been put out front here today, to do the shoving for Sinn Féin, and, indeed, maybe the IRA. Is it not time for those people to come forward, tell the truth and give these people’s remains back to their families?
I thank everybody who contributed to the debate, and, in particular, I thank Mr Bradley for bringing the motion to the House. Although we have some reservations about the Ulster Unionists’ amendment, we are prepared to accept it and will not divide the House on it. By dividing the House, one would take away from the substance of the motion.
The motion is a timely reminder to those who have information about the disappeared to divulge it to the commission, or to do so through an intermediary to the commission, because the pain that people suffered continues. It does not simply end, and, of course, the recovery of remains for other families of the disappeared adds to that pain because it creates a greater expectation that remains can be found, and that has to be borne in mind.
Therefore, the earnest plea from all Members of the House is for people to search their recollections and consciences and to provide information, no matter how little it might be, to give closure to those families who have suffered so much.
I cannot understand why the IRA did this. Why did they take away bodies? There is enough indignity and suffering in ordinary people finding their loved one shot and left as some sort of refuse on the side of a road. The taking away, concealing and burying of that body is an act of savagery and a gross violation of anybody’s rights.
We heard condemnation from the Sinn Féin Benches. They said that it was terrible, but we heard no explanation of why it happened in the first place. We heard no condemnation of the murders, only of the fact that the remains were disappeared — and that was some violation of people’s rights. However, there was no condemnation whatsoever of the act of murder.
William Humphrey (DUP)
Those of us who have lost loved ones through natural causes know of the absolute loss that that brings to a family as they try to deal with it. However, consider the position of a family who have experienced the absolute loss of someone being murdered in a most heinous crime and not being able to deal with that, and then not being able to deal with it for decades afterwards and not knowing where, or if, that person is buried. That is an absolutely awful travesty. We hear others talking about the hierarchy of victimhood, but these people are placed at the top of victimhood in Northern Ireland, because they have not had the opportunity to gain closure and to provide a Christian burial for their loved one. That has to be an absolute indictment of those involved.
I thank the Member for his intervention, and I agree with him.
Mr McLaughlin said that this was the policy or practice of the IRA and that that policy or practice was wrong. He left it at that; he did not give any further explanation. It was a policy. He said that it was a bad policy, but that they had abandoned it and, therefore, had, in some respects, set things right. That cannot be right.
In his intervention during Mr McLaughlin’s contribution, Mr Jim Allister pointed out, again, the 2005 justification in relation to Jean McConville. That act cannot be justified. It was a criminal act by anybody’s standards. It has been confirmed by Nuala O’Loan that Jean McConville was not an informant, a British spy or whatever you want to call it, but even if she was, how would that justify somebody putting a gun to the back of her head? She was the mother of young children. As a consequence of that act, that family was destroyed — individually and collectively. Shame on those who did it. The fact that up to a dozen people were involved in that act of brutality brings great shame on that community and organisation.
For a Member of the House to continue to insist that it was not a criminal act is reprehensible. I think that the Member should reflect very carefully indeed on what he has restated in the House today, and his party should reflect very carefully on that. If he does not change his position, one hopes that the party, at least, will change its position. We are in an entirely new dispensation, and it is not right for those old habits and those old and bad values to continue. They are anti-human. They are anti everything we believe is civilised and just, and they should be abandoned. I call on Sinn Féin and Mr McLaughlin to reflect very carefully indeed.
It has been suggested in some way that the commission will wind up its activities in the near future. First, I do not believe that that will happen. It may slow down or retrench its activities, but I do not believe that its activities will end. It has a statutory mandate, here in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, to continue its work. The Assembly should make it very plain to the commission that that work should continue until the last possible bit of information is obtained in order to retrieve those who have been disappeared in such a callous fashion. As Mr Lunn said, this is a legacy of the past, and we all have to deal with it. By tabling the motion today, we reaffirm the fact that that legacy of the past must be completed.
I believe that it was Mr Lunn who mentioned the case of Lisa Dorrian. It is important that we remind the public about Lisa Dorrian and express our sympathy and support for that family, who have also been cruelly treated.
There has been some unanimity in the House about the continuance of the commission’s work. I believe that there is consensus about the noble objective of obtaining the remains of those who are still disappeared. I hope that such consensus continues and that the resources and the will continue until there is a successful conclusion to the recovery of the disappeared.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly acknowledges the progress that has been made in locating the remains of disappeared victims; recognises the work of the families, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, WAVE Trauma Centre and others in achieving that progress; notes that some families are still waiting; and calls on the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains to make clear what more can be done, and by whom, to bring the comfort of recovery to the remaining families.
Adjourned at 4.02 pm.