Perception of ‘killing terror by kindness’ risked IRA threat

British papers: 1980s files reveal efforts to tackle west Belfast poverty and paramilitarism

One of  many heavy machine guns that were in the hands of the IRA and were recovered by Northern Ireland  security forces. File photograph:   Paul Faith/PA Photo

One of many heavy machine guns that were in the hands of the IRA and were recovered by Northern Ireland security forces. File photograph: Paul Faith/PA Photo

 

Many people in Catholic west Belfast had become alienated from “normal civilised behaviour” in the late 1980s, Northern Ireland’s most senior civil servant said in a memo written in 1987.

The memo, from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir Ken Bloomfield, is included in the British government papers released today.

Britain’s efforts to tackle poverty, unemployment, alienation and paramilitarism in west Belfast are set out in files from the late 1980s.

In a key memo, Sir Ken referred to the area’s “ghetto mentality”. He feared British government attempts to regenerate the area would provoke “crude political reaction [from unionism] on the lines of ‘Do you have to kill British soldiers ... to benefit from a cornucopia of assistance?’”

A report on west Belfast included in the files noted it comprised 10 per cent of the North’s population and 73 per cent of its residents were Catholic. Catholic male unemployment in west Belfast was 47 per cent, double the figure for Northern Ireland as a whole.

In his memo, prepared for Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tom King, dated April 11th, 1987, Sir Ken said while other areas showed most of the acute social and economic problems of Catholic west Belfast, “what makes the area unique is the scale and concentration of these problems and their very close association with grave political and security difficulties; the strength of PIRA/Sinn Fein and their influence in the area; the alienation of a large section of the population from the institutions of government (and indeed, in some respects, from normal civilised behaviour); the ghetto mentality and the widespread sense of hopelessness and lack of faith in the government’s interest in the problem ...”

Even the most moderate members of the west Belfast community, he wrote, “tend to believe government neglect for the area and point to the contrast with the millions ... spent on maintaining employment in Protestant east Belfast.”

‘Benign influences’

In identifying “benign influences” through which the government might work, he listed the Catholic Church, the SDLP and local community groups. He said Bishop Cahal Daly and several of his clergy were involved in seeking constructive solutions, as was the SDLP.

In his view, the best course must be “to turn Belfast round”, to undermine the ghetto mentality, reduce the alienation, give the people hope and confidence and to undercut the influence of the Provisional IRA.

Bishop Daly had suggested a comprehensive integrated development plan but Sir Ken felt this would “create unrealistic expectations”.

He noted the British government was to discuss Catholic west Belfast at the Intergovernmental Conference with Irish ministers. However, he warned of negative reaction in the unionist community to any effort to focus resources on the area.

“There will be some crude political reaction on the lines of “Do you have to kill British soldiers in full public view in order to benefit from a cornucopia of assistance?”

He said it would be better if some government efforts were “not too vigorously trumpeted”and he warned if civilian officials were perceived by the IRA to be involved in a strategy of “killing terrorism by kindness” they could be at personal risk.

In conclusion, he invited the Secretary of State to agree that “the unique combination of acute social and economic problems and political and security considerations demanded special measures in west Belfast”. He proposed an “action programme”.

In June 1988, following this advice, Mr King announced support for a major development programme for west Belfast.