There were heated exchanges in Creggan this week at a protest organised by residents who are fearful of potential health risks brought about by arson attacks at St. Mary’s Youth Club.
Issues raised about the presence of asbestos in one, or both buildings, is the main cause for concern, but members of the community are also frustrated with the lack of security at the site which has been targeted by arsonists on three consecutive nights.
A new £2m youth centre will be built at the site after it was given the unanimous backing of Derry City & Strabane District Council’s Planning Committee in January.
However, while the site has lain vacant it has attracted anti-social elements, culminating in this week’s events.
Elected councillors gathered at Fanad Drive in support of local residents on Tuesday. Amongst them were Gary Donnelly, Kevin Campbell and Sean Carr, as well as MLA Mark H. Durkan
A dispute flared between Cllr Donnelly and St Mary’s Youth Club Centre Manager Stephen ‘Stevie’ Mallett around onsite security after the local councillor was accused of being an “agitator”.
He said it was his job to represent residents and they had arranged the protest, while Mr Mallett explained that he and other youth workers had worked tirelessly to monitor the site.
Kate Armstrong of Greenwalk, which is adjacent to the affected buildings, attended the protest to express concerns about any further incidents.
Her grandson, who suffers with chronic asthma, had to be moved out of the house at the weekend due to the risks associated with smoke inhalation.
She explained: “We’re getting tortured every day by people drinking and carrying on, then if you come out and say anything you get a mouthful.
“The house was stinking of smoke at the weekend and still is. I had my grandchildren with me and one of them is a chronic asthmatic, as I am myself, and I had to phone his parents to come get him because he was choking.
“There were worries about asbestos in one of the buildings and a fella told me this morning that the smaller building does have it. This type of anti-social behaviour has been going on for years at the site.
“Nobody has been watching the site. The sooner it is knocked down, the better. Get it out of the way so we can have peace.”
Meanwhile, Bridie O’Brien has a child who uses a wheelchair and she expressed heartfelt concerns about his wellbeing in the event of another fire.
“If we have to go out in the street my wee fella is going to be beat because I cannot lift him because he uses hoists as well.
“The past two weeks it has been really bad, in our side, there are a lot of people with disabilities. I’d like to see security at the site.”
Josephine Canning added that she attended the protest because of “worries” about the air quality as an emphysema sufferer. She is now “terrified” of opening her windows.
Independent Cllr for the Moor Gary Donnelly said: “For three consecutive nights there were fires in this building and the perimeter wasn’t secured. I got a phone call last night again from residents when the fire brigade was here.
“Residents were very frustrated and said they were going to confront the contractors so that culminated in a protest being organised today at 12 o’clock to highlight it. I think there are very serious issues here and I call on young people to stop going into this building because it’s a health and safety risk – they could hurt themselves.
“But not only that, there are potentially dangerous materials inside which could affect their long-term health. The community, particularly the residents facing this, deserve a bit of respect and the people in charge here need to be dealing with this issue as soon as possible.
“There’s a blasé attitude taken, and I believe if this was in another part of the town it would be dealt with immediately.”
Community worker Stevie Mallett was in agreement that there “absolutely should be security on the site” and said his youth teams have been acting as de facto security in recent weeks.
“Over the bank holiday weekend, not one of us had a day off, we’ve been trying to keep the wains away. We can’t be here 24/7 and the problem is when we break for a cup of tea or go off for a bite to eat the wains slip back in again.
“On Saturday night the fire happened within a half hour when we went to the takeaway for a bite to eat. Two or three 10-year-olds got in, set a fire, and the whole thing went up.”
He added that the reality is teenagers can do “idiotic things” but they have been “respectful” when asked to move on.
In terms of asbestos, the contractor has to secure the building he said. “We completed two comprehensive asbestos reports on both buildings. But naturally when you start to demolish it other areas get exposed.
“There were small quantities of hard board asbestos in the community centre that had to be sampled and we then got permission to move it in a safe manner.
“When more of the site was exposed they came across ceiling tiles that could have contained asbestos. A sample has been taken and it has been sent off but we haven’t got the report back. The building and area were sealed and a sign put up saying ‘possible asbestos stay out’.
“The fire service must’ve seen that but the fire didn’t touch that room so it wasn’t affected.”
Security has now been installed at the site and Mr Mallett planned to meet with the department of education to put measures in place. “Security was to be installed at the construction stage, there hadn’t been at the demolition stage because we didn’t think we’d need it.
“Budgets are tight, in retrospect it was a mistake but it’s one we’re trying to rectify,” he concluded.
Sinn Féin Cllr Kevin Campbell came along to lend his support to residents after reading about the protest on social media.
“It’s the residents who are having to put up with this and they have vented their anger today. It’s important they have their say.
“Everyone can see just how frustrated they are and the quicker we get this building down the better.”
SDLP MLA Mark H. Durkan said he worked with the centre to secure planning permission and more recently intervened to expedite the certificate to commence demolition.
“If development hadn’t commenced the new centre might’ve been lost. I will now be in contact with the health and safety executive to get clearance as quickly as possible to proceed with demolition of both buildings.”
Moving forward he believes the site must be properly secured to allay residents’ concerns and is eagerly anticipating the opening of the new centre in around eighteen months’ time.
Photo: Mark H. Durkan acts as mediator between Cllr Donnelly and Mr Mallett.
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