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Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2006, 08:50 GMT
N Ireland's new inter-faith estates
Kevin Connolly
By Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent

There was a fashion a few months back among politicians and commentators to come up with a definition of what political normality will look like in Northern Ireland when it eventually comes.

Republican mural on a house in Belfast
Murals have been a prominent symbol of segregation

I'm sure you can guess how they went, "You'll know the troubles are finally over for good when unarmed police officers can stroll through Crossmaglen in South Armagh on morning patrol...", that kind of thing.

Well, by the same token you'll know that the province has a normal property market when house-hunting couples no longer have to keep an eye open for the Union Jacks or Irish tricolours on lamp-posts or the kerbstones painted in national colours which mark out different areas as "belonging" to one community or the other.

Sense of separateness

Those tribal markings are not there simply to serve as aggressive and hostile celebrations of identity - they are clearly designed to ensure that no-one of "the wrong sort" would even consider moving in.

In other words, they consolidate sectarianism in the housing market.

I don't want to know whether they are Protestant or Catholic. I'm interested in whether they are a good neighbour or not
Resident Michelle Irvine

They tend to be found in lower-income housing areas (people further up the income scale tend to find more subtle forms of sectarian self-definition) and they are an important technique for reinforcing the sense of separateness and division which remains a defining characteristic of Northern Irish society even in this time of relative peace.

There are signs though, that all this could be beginning to change.

At Enniskillen, in County Fermanagh, a new red-brick development built in conjunction with a local housing association has been explicitly designed as a mixed community.

All the householders - Catholic, Protestant and Eastern European - have signed up to a contract in which they agree there'll be no fluttering flags or painted kerbstones. Carran Crescent in effect, will be neutral ground.

One of the first residents, Michelle Irvine said simply: " I want to mix with all different kinds. I don't want to know whether they are Protestant or Catholic. I'm interested in whether they are a good neighbour or not."

Now admittedly, as signs of hope go, this is a fairly small one - 94% of social housing in Northern Ireland is still effectively segregated along sectarian lines.

But it is hope nonetheless. There are plans for integrated schemes in more small towns around the province, and even for a city centre area in Belfast not far from the Shankill Road, one of the historic homes of uncompromising loyalism.

There's no reason in theory why this kind of social experiment in the property sector can't act as a catalyst for change in the future, just as the drive for integrated education has had an impact (albeit a less than overwhelming impact) on Northern Ireland's tradition of sectarian schooling.

Significant hope

We know that changes in housing policy can be a significant hope for the future precisely because we know what a significant role that the issue played in the past.

Estate agents window
House prices have been rising quickly in the province

One of the cases which helped give the Civil Rights movement momentum in 1968 was a decision by a council in Dungannon, County Tyrone, to award a local-authority-owned house to the unmarried secretary of a Protestant politician rather than to Catholic families with children who were on the housing waiting list.

In the early 1970s, when sectarian violence appeared to be running out of control, tens of thousands of men, women and children were forced to move house, mainly in Belfast, abandoning mixed streets in favour of safer areas where they could guarantee to be surrounded by 'their own'.

Northern Ireland is more stable and more peaceful these days, and the residents of Carran Crescent are entitled to look to the future with optimism.

But there's another sense too, in which stories about property these days in Northern Ireland have a more positive feel to them.

House prices in the province have been shooting up of late, even faster than those in Britain.

The city of Newry, just on the northern side of the Irish border, recorded the highest rise of any individual town over the last 10 years - 371%.

Now of course, that's not straightforward good news - there are issues about the affordability of homes for first-time buyers, and for lower-income families.

But for Northern Ireland it is good news - after all, it means that the news here these days, is pretty much like the news elsewhere in the property price-obsessed UK.

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