Northern Ireland’s post war housing stock was worse than that of any other part of the United Kingdom, despite having been spared the worst of the German blitz. Most houses had been built before the First World War and they were grossly inadequate in quantity as well as in quality.
In England the newly elected Labour Government was determined to make amends to the working class heroes who had saved the country from fascism, quickly introducing the Welfare State and embarking on an ambitious house-building programme. The Education Acts (1944 in England, 1947 in Northern Ireland) opened up free secondary education to the baby-boom generation. In all social reform legislation, the ultra conservative Unionist Government at Stormont dragged its heels, eventually succumbing to reform for fear of more direct political intervention in all its affairs. A new body the Northern Ireland Housing Trust was charged with house construction. The first of the new post-war housing estates was located in Rooney’s meadow on the western edge of Newry.
Newry Urban Council was proud of its achievements over the previous decades, having built working class homes at O’Neill’s Avenue, Erskine Street and Pound Road, to name but a few, but this did not even begin to address the enormous demand. Some 20% of all the town’s approximate 15000 citizens were on the housing list. Even the most recently constructed homes were beyond people’s means, were located within the inadequate town boundaries, were bereft of such necessary facilities as bathrooms, and even in some cases, inside toilets, were much too small for families and had no open play spaces near them. Stormont especially frowned upon house building in predominantly nationalist areas such as Newry. Even the Urban Council was blighted by this sectarian attitude. Through to the 1960s house allocation remained one of the local council’s powers, and some 25% of new stock – mainly within the predominantly Protestant North Ward, but elsewhere as well – was in the gift of Councillors representing little more than half that percentage of constituents. This fact is often quoted as evidence of the enduring magnanimity of Newry’s nationalist councillors. In reality it was reverse discrimination at its most perverse at best; at worst, it was evidence of moral cowardice. Certainly generations of large families, forced to endure further decades of gross over-crowding in cramped town housing, some parents raising a whole family in a single room, had little cause to celebrate.
On the positive side, the policy ensured that the residents of the new estate were well mixed in religious terms. This was partly effected by the policy of awarding three points to ex-service men’s families, they being, for the greater part, mainly Protestant in professed creed. For half its subsequent life, the mix worked well and few complaints were heard or incidents recorded.
Unfortunately when our recent Troubles reached their height, a number of Protestants relocated to other parts where they felt more secure. Even at the start, there were many more Catholic families, but Protestant families were represented initially beyond their natural numbers in this, the overwhelmingly nationalist West End of Newry. Curiously (or maybe not) these Protestant families were usually allocated homes in close proximity to one another. By and large they tended to gravitate towards one another and social contact across the religious divide was restricted. Subsequent decades have shown that mixed marriages were very much the exception here as elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Saying that, we lived then through a time of relative political stability and inter-community stability.
The great majority of Newry families on housing estates lived side by side in peace and harmony.