A leading member of the Civil Rights movement has warned that evictions could soon become commonplace in Derry again.
Fionnbarra O’Dochartaigh, who co-founded the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967, said it is “distressing” that people are once again facing eviction from their homes.
Mr O’Dochartaigh said that in his youth he campaigned against evictions with fellow members of the Young Republican Association and little has changed, more than forty years on.
He remembered one particular eviction in Harvey Street in Derry in 1967 which sparked public outrage. He said it is disappointing that the matter is not receiving public attention today.
“I vividly recall as an activist within the Young Republican Association (YRA) organising public opposition to evictions.
“The most dramatic of these was that of a widow in poor health, 48 year-old Mrs. Nelly McDonnell, and two of her youngest children on August 2nd 1967 from their house at Harvey Street in Derry,” he said.
Explaining what happened, Mr O’Dochartaigh said; “Mrs McDonnell suffered a heart-attack while resisting the bailiffs who had crowbars and were backed up by numerous armed police. She was rushed away by ambulance to hospital. There she remained for quite a period.”
The Journal and the Irish News reported that during the eviction, a group of young republicans attempted to barricade themselves inside the house to prevent the bailiffs getting in.
Members of the Young Republican Association played records through the upstairs windows of the house and said they were prepared for “a three month siege” if necessary.
Mrs McDonnell said she did not believe she had done anything wrong and added that she was not prepared to leave.
“I would leave without any trouble if I thought I was wrong. I have been on the Housing Trust list for 19 years,” she said.
A crowd of about 200 people gathered in the street and barricades were erected in an effort to prevent the bailiffs getting in. Despite their efforts. the eviction was carried out.
Mr O’Dochartaigh said: “Such was the outcry locally that on her release the family was reunited after accepting keys to a flat above the Aran Court shops in Creggan.”
A newspaper report detailed the protests against the eviction at the time.
“As the eviction was being carried out, members of the Young Republican Association arrived, and one of its leaders spoke to the crowd from a downstairs window sill. He said ‘Fellow citizens, today we have witnessed an eviction which could not have taken place across the water. This is owing to the laws which are in force in this area, laws which have been kept on the statute book by the Housing Executive and Stormont authorities.’”
Mr O’Dochartaigh the economic downturn has created a situation where evictions could once again become a common occurance in Derry. He questioned the lack of a public outcry.
“I find it very distressing that in 2012 similar tactics are again being employed and seemingly accepted as ‘normal’ or ‘due process’.
“Public bodies and prominent individuals, particularly those who clamoured for devolution to Stormont, not least sitting MLAs, should legislate on this issue as a matter of urgency. Many like myself are asking, if not, why not?” he said.
Mr O’ Dochartaigh suggested that new legislation should be introduced to help people experiencing difficulties with their mortgages in order to avoid evictions.
“So-called ‘safeguards’ introduced to protect struggling mortgage holders are in fact having the opposite effect.
“There is an obvious need to legislate whereby a Mortgage Rescue Scheme can be introduced so that there is the same level of protection as exists in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as in the 26 Counties.
“It is now acknowledged that protocols introduced by the Lord Chief Justice Office in 2009 were intended to open up contact between the lender and borrower.
“Such are being used in such a way as to give more power to the lender and thus accelerate the repossession process,” he said.
The civil rights campaigner said that not only are the numbers of repossessions increasing, but that the process is now quicker.
“It’s noteworthy that pre-2010 it took one year to get a house to the repossession stage. Now, two years later, it now takes approximately six months because lenders have been granted more powers over borrowers.
“Local mortgage holders should have the same rights as those that pertain elsewhere, beyond these Six Counties. Everything possible must be done to help people avoid homelessness. And as far as the wider electorate is concerned, the buck surely stops on the floor of Stormont,” he said.