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Consensus and Debate: Walking the 'New' Northern Ireland

"Consensus is not necessarily a good thing, particularly when it shuts down debate." -Aidan Beatty, "No Arguments Please, We're Irish"

A color photograph of a run down site. Old fencing with barbed wire sits open. A small patch of yellow wildflowers grows in the lower left hand corner among the rough scene.
The Girdwood Army Barracks in North Belfast, pre-redevelopment. Image courtesy Thomas McMullan.

Negotiations over space, place and belonging occur daily around the world, despite wildly differing geographical, historical and political contexts. Walking through any city, one sees how places are shaped to exclude some and benefit others. However, one can also observe the presence of individuals and groups challenging the status quo, reclaiming space through protest and collective action.

In this respect, it is perhaps debate, rather than consensus, that Northern Ireland currently needs. Beatty’s rejoinder on consensus might well have been the epitaph for my research on the Girdwood Community Hub in North Belfast. The Hub was once an old Army Barracks, a key site of conflict during the period known colloquially as the Troubles. Despite its unassuming exterior, the Hub remains a site of conflict today, built on a foundation of ethnosectarian contest and power struggle.

Tensions around space and place came to shape the course of the redevelopment; at the time the Girdwood site was demilitarised, North Belfast was experiencing severe housing crisis. The housing waiting list was predominantly Catholic/Nationalist in composition. In response, Protestant/Unionist politicians stoked fears of Nationalist ‘encroachment’ among their electorate and blocked adequate housing provision for the site.

In order to move forward with development, Sinn Féin acquiesced on the housing issue. The eventual Community Hub that was delivered became an effective ‘white elephant’ that merely reinscribes the sectarian geographies present in the area. Meanwhile, the housing crisis in North Belfast is ongoing.

The Girdwood redevelopment embodies the broader dynamics that characterized the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998-2016. During this period, the forces that fuelled the Troubles – territoriality, power, identity – came to be reproduced in the corridors of the Assembly Buildings and in spaces like the Girdwood Hub. Yet, grudging compromise had to be achieved between Unionists and Nationalists in order for the government to remain afloat.

These compromises were often feeble, based on resource competition and ethnosectarian trade-off – a reminder that consensus is not necessarily a good thing. The Northern Ireland Assembly’s version of consensus often led to mutual accommodation rather than debate, blocking any space for transformative change. This dynamic was reflected at Girdwood, where compromise on the site turned into a zero-sum carve-up between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Understanding the nuances of the Girdwood site and the political forces that shaped it came not, at first, from desk research (although that followed, later), but from utilizing walking as methodology. My work engages in part with the physicality of the built environment – the surfaces, corners and walls of Belfast – in order to interrogate broader historical and socio-economic trends. I have walked through North Belfast hundreds of times in order to trace its history and chart the present day.

Some phenomena are evident: graffiti on a lamppost, derelict houses and new construction. Some are less so: boundaries and micro-geographies invisible at first glance, oblique coded references and peculiarities of place picked up over many walks. Passing the Girdwood site, for instance, it is curious that only one modest housing development was built towards the Catholic/Nationalist side of the development. Curious, too, that there are wide swathes of land left vacant, or that paramilitary markers hang from a gable wall across the street. The surrounding area remains, for the most part, untraversed.

The Girdwood Army Barracks in North Belfast, pre-redevelopment. Image courtesy Thomas McMullan.

Walking as methodology can add weight and texture to historical study. Being immersed in one’s surroundings, one perceives both the everyday realities of the landscape and the ways in which the past is continually present within it. Places are heavy with memory, the visible and invisible sediment of time, and this can be felt on foot. In Belfast, for instance, memorial plaques, paramilitary murals, statues and street signs situate the past in plain sight. Militarized architecture, interface barriers, the jagged edges around the motorway also bear witness to the past and the historical and political forces that shape space over time.

Whilst walking, one may also note broader forces in what is absent from a place. On the Girdwood site, only 60 houses were built on 27 acres of land in the midst of a housing crisis. The absence not only of housing but of people and gathering spaces is palpable - the site is only ten minutes’ walk from city centre but with none of the energy. Residual demographic tensions are visible, too. On the Protestant/Unionist side of an adjacent ‘peace wall’ is empty land, a symptom of decline, where on the Catholic/Nationalist side of the barrier, houses are cramped and crowded right up to the edge.

Although the Girdwood Hub’s redevelopment failed to reshape North Belfast, seismic shifts have since taken place in the political realm. In 2016, the uneasy consensus of power-sharing crumbled and Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly. Northern Ireland was left rudderless during the Brexit referendum and subsequent negotiations. In more recent months, the DUP have refused to take their place in a new Assembly because of opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a proposed compromise on the border brokered by the UK and EU. The same dynamics that built Girdwood have ultimately led to the failure of post-Agreement politics.

Though consensus has given way to political stasis, it feels as though, in turn, there is increasing space for civic debate. As the Assembly has failed, and failed again, new voices and demands have sprung up – people are tired of the status quo. And this, too, is reflected in the physical environment.

Recently, I went for a walk in Belfast. It was the first time I’d been back in several years. I passed the old Mackie’s factory site in West Belfast. The 30-acre site had been derelict for a long time. Recently, a greenway and bike path had been installed there by the City Council. Yet there was no trace of housing, again, in an area that needed it – mirroring the Girdwood Hub’s fate.

There were wildflowers, though, great tracts of them. I later learned they were from ‘seed bombs’ thrown by Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), a residents’ group that has launched a vibrant housing campaign at Mackie’s and other sites across Belfast. At the time Girdwood was redeveloped, community-based work by groups like PPR was an isolated example of what could happen if alternative politics were allowed room to grow outside of the traditional sectarian divide. In the interim, this alternative space has expanded.

PPR continues to advocate for fair housing and to organize with Northern Ireland’s growing population of asylum seekers. Ongoing activism around Irish-language rights is reflected in street art, community gardens and new Irish-language street signs around Belfast. Coalitions and campaigns have come together against irresponsible redevelopment plans in Belfast’s city centre. These issues, along with concerns around the rising cost of living and declining health services, have supplanted identity issues for many.

Diversification of the electorate and new sites of political struggle have forged a space in Northern Ireland to which traditional party politics is ill-equipped to respond. It seems that the uneasy consensus that produced Girdwood has given way to new opportunities for debate outside of the ethnosectarian divide. In turn, these dynamics are creating new spaces for people to come together.


Dr. Elizabeth DeYoung is a Research Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research. Prior to her appointment at the Center, Dr. DeYoung was awarded a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellowship, a national postdoctoral program, and led social policy research initiatives at Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia.

Dr. DeYoung earned a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, where her doctoral work focused on post-conflict politics and planning in Northern Ireland. She also received an MA in Irish Studies from Queen University Belfast and a BA in International Affairs and Modern Languages from Northeastern University. Dr. DeYoung has authored several peer-reviewed publications, and her first book, Power, Politics and Territory in the ‘New Northern Ireland’ is forthcoming in November 2023 from Liverpool University Press.


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