By Noel McAdam
Belfast Telegraph
30 May 2012

The SDLP has backed away from the Girdwood barracks project in north Belfast, claiming it may be part of a wider DUP/Sinn Fein deal involving the Maze.

After disarray in its Assembly ranks, the party attempted to present a united front, insisting the Girdwood barracks site should include 220 houses — the figure first put forward by its former Social Development Ministers Alex Attwood and Margaret Ritchie.

Yet North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness signed up to last week’s breakthrough package which is thought to involve around 100 homes — 70 aimed at nationalists, and 30 at unionists, in two separate developments.

It was suggested on Monday that Mr Maginness may have been unaware of a more comprehensive package which saw the DUP agree to the Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze it had formerly objected to.

Mr Maginness was not available for comment, but a party statement said: “Alban entered into the process on the regeneration of Girdwood in good faith with rising tensions. In this instance the outcome was wrong and Alban fully accepts that.”

Following a party group meeting on Monday, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell insisted: “There is a growing belief — hidden from some of those involved in the Girdwood discussions — that the outcome was pre-cooked by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

“How else can Peter Robinson’s about-turn on the Maze be explained, moving from opposing ‘a shrine to the IRA’ to promoting ‘a mecca for tourists’?

“How else can Sinn Fein’s abandonment of the principle of meeting housing need be reconciled with their long-trumpeted support for 220 houses on the Girdwood site?

“The DUP and Sinn Fein have many questions to answer, questions which they are avoiding.

“Did Sinn Fein concede on Girdwood and on housing need to get the Maze?

“Did the DUP concede on the Maze to protect their electoral interests in north Belfast and damage the honest principle of meeting housing need there and everywhere?”

A DUP spokesman on Monday night denied there was any connection between the two issues.

There was no immediate comment from Sinn Fein.

Mr McDonnell said the party was now sticking to its insistence that the site should include 220 homes, although no detailed plans have yet been finalised by the Housing Executive.

The South Belfast MLA said that in May last year the DSD portfolio passed to the DUP, with design work undertaken and a housing association preparing a planning application, but new minister Nelson McCausland axed the Attwood plan.

Mr McDonnell added: “Of course, the SDLP wants to see the wider development and regeneration of the Girdwood site, but progress on regeneration must not be at the price of fair housing and housing need.”

A blueprint that seemed to end six years of stalemate

After six years of stalemate, a deal involving all four main Stormont parties on the future of the former Girdwood barracks site was unveiled last week.

The blueprint included two housing areas — the larger aimed at nationalists who make up 90% of acute housing need in north Belfast — and a ‘shared space’ with sports, education and business elements.

Though backed by the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Ulster Unionists, the plan began to unravel as it emerged the total houses involved may amount to around 100 — 120 less than announced by ex-Social Development Ministers Margaret Ritchie and Alex Attwood from the SDLP.

The former Army site off the Crumlin Road in Belfast had been gifted to the Social Development Department from the Ministry of Defence but disagreements over how it should be used prevented any progress. DUP minister Nelson McCausland, who succeeded Mr Attwood last May, put the SDLP plan in mothballs.

Instead Mr McCausland began a consultation with community interests on the development of a shared site which resulted in a so-called masterplan intending to create, according to its mission statement, “a vibrant, inclusive and diverse environment which attracts present and future generations of people to live, work and visit”.

A joint statement a week ago signed by DUP deputy leader and MP Nigel Dodds, Mr McCausland, Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral ni Chuilin, former junior minister Gerry Kelly and the SDLP’s Alban Maginness acknowledged the past — and was upbeat about the future.

“In an area of the city most affected by the conflict and continuing to deal with the legacies of division, the Girdwood site has been a powerful and disheartening symbol of the past,” they said.

“But now all around us we can see signs of confidence and optimism for the future in north Belfast.”

Announcing the project, Mr McCausland said: “We’re sending a powerful message positive change is coming to north Belfast.”