Allison Morris: Threat screening must be thorough and thorough to prevent abuse

The paramilitary boot is still of great importance in many parts of Northern Ireland, where areas are controlled like mini fiefdoms by self-proclaimed paramilitary bosses who use coercion and threats to maintain their status.

theft and manipulation of the housing stock plays an important role in this network of control and intimidation.

Figures from the Northern Ireland Housing Authority (NIHE) released today show that in the 12 months to April, 286 people were reported to NIHE as homeless due to various forms of victimization.

Paramilitary intimidation was the most common, accounting for 142 people. This is lower than last year’s figure of 236 people.

The reduction in threats is to be welcomed, but it also shows that much remains to be done to eradicate intimidation from those who seek to control neighborhoods in order to protect their criminal empires.

Since the start of fiscal year 2017/18, 1,392 people have been declared homeless due to intimidation by paramilitaries.

That high-level paramilitary figures have been allowed to manipulate the housing system for so long is a serious indictment of our society, and some even get to the boards of directors and housing associations that control the social housing fund.

Such control and power has helped secure their status as a protected species and makes people too afraid to speak up for fear of the consequences.

There is another, no less serious problem with the current point-based housing system, which also needs to be improved.

In the 2021/22 season, 17 presentations were related to antisocial behavior.

Fourteen were due to sectarian bullying and fewer than five were due to sexual orientation and racial bullying.

A simple scan of any newspaper archive will show that the number of racist attacks during this time is much higher than these figures suggest.

The number of families forced to leave their homes because of racism is a broader social problem that is more acute in some parts of Northern Ireland than others.

The problem seems to be related to the verification of threats through an agency that has contact with loyalist and Republican restorative justice groups, who then confirm or deny the existence of the threat.

It is easy to see how this would put people newly associated with Northern Ireland at a distinct disadvantage.

Bullying points can send a tenant to the top of the housing list ahead of families who have been waiting years for temporary housing.

Therefore, screening for these threats must be thorough and properly rigorous to prevent abuse.

It is not uncommon for paramilitary groups to send fake threats to other friends and criminal associates in order to get the first choice of new buildings. This only reinforces the coercion with the apartment complexes controlled by criminal elements.

Bullying points are also inaccessible to victims of domestic violence who have had to leave their home for their own safety.

Previous ministers have expressed a desire to change this, but for now, a mother who leaves with her children to save her family from an abusive partner may find herself in the wrong temporary accommodation while others jump to the front of the line.

This simply highlights the importance of a properly managed points system for allocating new homes and a unified approach to ensure that those most in dire need are not left out in favor of those who have learned to manipulate the system.

All threats, regardless of motivation, must be properly investigated. All families have the right to feel safe in their own home. The need to move home, often pulling children away from school and friends, and sometimes separating vulnerable people from their support network, has a huge impact on people’s lives.

Private rentals are out of the budget for many families and can be unreliable in the long run.

Housing allocation was at the heart of the civil rights movement, and it is significant that more than 50 years after the Housing Authority was created, it remains primarily a matter of necessity. This includes recognizing those who are at real risk and ensuring that their plight is not undermined by those who seek to manipulate the system.