NORTH Belfast is changing dramatically and will soon boast a nationalist political majority despite the “state of denial” in which unionists are existing.

That’s the opinion of leading political commentator Brian Feeney who was speaking this week during a debate about sectarianism in the north of the city. The North Belfast man also accused unionist politicians of stoking tensions in sensitive areas, during the discussion at the NICVA offices in Duncairn Gardens.

Speaking about the expansion of the nationalist community in North Belfast, Mr Feeney said unionist politicians were ignoring the inevitable result of political realities.

“Unionist politicians have been living a lie for over 30 years,” he said. “They are pretending that it is as it always was. Walls have been built around nationalist districts, which stops them from expanding into areas, which were formerly unionist.

“Ardoyne, Oldpark, Cliftonville, they have all seen massive walls being built. What’s clear, however, is that the unionist community is declining in North Belfast.”

Addressing the conference, which also featured contributions from Pastor Jack McKee, Chris Quinn of the NI Youth Forum and Duncan McMorrow of Queen’s University, Mr Feeney said there were many legitimate reasons for the decline including intimidation. However he also likened the move of unionists to the withdrawal of white families in the United States as areas became more ethnically diverse.

“They have now moved further out of the city. It’s the equivalent of the ‘white flight’, which happened in America. There’s no point in asking whose fault it is. The fact is, it’s happening and there’s also no point in trying to stop it. That’s one of the biggest causes of sectarianism.”

Mr Feeney was an SDLP councillor in North Belfast in the 1980s. He described the area as a “difficult one to represent”.

“Things have gotten better. There’s no doubt about that. Back then at least two people were being killed every week in North Belfast. There were other contributing factors as well as the sectarian murders, such as the pressures of loyalist marches. That has improved too. 1987 saw some of the most serious riots in Manor Street because of an Orange parade which passed the area. Houses were burnt out, people lost their homes and the trouble lasted for weeks. It took 800 policemen and 1000 soldiers to put the march through. All that has improved dramatically.”

Mr Feeney also attacked the unionist parties’ insistence that they “must keep” North Belfast.

“There has to be a recognition that the demographics have changed and will continue to change. It will go nationalist. There’s no doubt about that.

“Because they think they can maintain this position, unionists insist on marching in areas where they marched years ago, such as Ardoyne. It’s just stupid.”