New report reveals why Protestants left Derry’s west bank

The survey claims that intimidation was not behind the Protestant exodus in 1970s

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Poor housing and lack of economic development contributed to the migration of Protestants from Derry’s west bank in the 1970s, according to a new report.

The report by human rights organisation the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), which is to be launched in Derry today, found direct intimidation was not the main reason Protestants left the mainly Catholic west bank of the Foyle.

Instead, a number of “interrelated push and pull factors” combined to encourage Protestants to move either to the east bank - which was predominantly Protestant – or away from Derry.

These included a fundamental shift in the position of Protestants within the city, poor and limited housing on the west bank, and the skewing of economic development and investment east of the Bann, as well as a lack of constructive leadership from unionist politicians.

The research was commissioned by the PFC to explore what its chairman, Tony Brown, called “a conversation that has at times been dominated by strident voices on one side and apathy on the other”.

“Some have argued that Protestants living on the west bank of the river Foyle in Derry were intimidated out of their homes, schools and workplaces in a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing led by the IRA since the early 1970s,” said Mr Brown.

Reality

“The perception that some of those making the accusation are themselves motivated by sectarianism has allowed the Catholic/nationalist/republican community in Derry to avoid the reality that thousands of our neighbours have left,” he said.

The report, Protestant Migration from the West Bank of Derry/Londonderry 1969-1980 was written by Dr Helen McLaughlin and Dr Ulf Hansson and funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Between 1971 and 1981, the Protestant population of the Cityside – as the west bank is known – decreased by 66 per cent, from 8,459 in 1971 to 2,874 in 1981.

By 1991 it had fallen further, to only 1,407 – a decrease of 83 per cent over a 20-year period.

This was part of a wider trend which had begun before the Troubles and reflected a pattern of increased segregation across Northern Ireland.

In Derry, with a river to divide it, this was most stark, “with an almost exclusively nationalist population on the west bank, and only a tiny minority Protestant community left on the west bank.”

According to the report, the evidence points to “a range of factors” influencing migration. These include an increasing sense of displacement among Protestants in the Cityside, as nationalists gained control of the city council, the housing system was reformed to address discrimination against Catholics, and the security forces – with which many Protestants strongly identified – were challenged over their handling of civil rights marches.

“All of this amounted to a significant shift in position from minority rule and control”, the report found, “which must arguably have challenged the Protestant community’s sense of ownership and belonging”.

The segregated nature of housing in the city, and the poor quality of housing stock on the Cityside, also influenced Protestant migration.

When new estates were finally built on the Waterside, Protestant populations were displaced from their run-down homes on the Cityside on a supposedly temporary basis, but the quality of the new housing and poor redesign of redeveloped areas meant many did not return.

There was a lack of economic and industrial planning and infrastructure development by the Stormont government west of the Bann. The skewing of development towards the largely Protestant east impacted on employment opportunities for the Protestant as well as Catholic populations of the city, and the availability of jobs encouraged some Protestant migrants to resettle in towns like Craigavon.

This only worsened as the conflict gained momentum and the city centre became characterised by unrest and violence.

In such a context, fears among Protestants over their safety and security were, inevitably, a significant factor.

Intimidation

Where there was direct intimidation, it had a “major, and in some cases immediate impact on individuals and on families and on where they felt able to live”.

Ongoing unrest, rioting, violence and killings as well as the bombings of businesses, “created an atmosphere of fear which caused people to move to areas considered safer”.

The instability caused by the introduction of internment and Bloody Sunday played a significant part, as did the targeting of security forces, the shooting of Protestant businessmen and the targeting of Protestant-owned businesses.

The report notes the impact on Protestant churches, which experienced not only the deaths of parishioners but also attacks on their places of worship and church halls, and the loss of congregations as Protestants migrated away from the Cityside.

Within this context, the report’s authors found the approach of the unionist leadership contributed to the growing sense of Protestant alienation.

They cited the tendency for unionist leaders to be disengaged from the grass roots and to fail to recognise the living conditions of working-class Protestants, as well as the decision by some leaders to invoke fear and stir up anti-Catholic and anti-civil rights feeling, as well as their readiness “to adapt the narrative of loss, so that any gains by the civil rights movement were cast as a win for the other side and an immense loss for unionism”.

There was also a failure by the civil rights movement to achieve cross-community engagement, and a failure of nationalist leaders to act in relation to the situation of the Protestant community.

The Protestant migration “leaves the population make-up and character of the city changed to this day”, the report concluded.

One family’s nightmare

In 1972 Jeanette Warke was 28-years-old and married with three children when she fled her home in the Fountain area on Derry’s west bank.

She and her family moved across the river to the village of Newbuildings, just outside the city.

“Every day we were living through hell,” she remembers. “My husband was caught up in crossfire when he came home from work, he worked in the Dupont factory and he was on shifts.

“They were banging on our door and shouting, ‘Get out Orange Bs’ and ‘Orange scum get out’.

“I was scared, I was terrified, that night I was sitting on the stairs with the three kids when my husband came in from his night shift and we just said enough was enough,” she said.

“I didn’t want to leave. I loved my neighbours, and I would stress it wasn’t our good Catholic neighbours because we had a very close relationship with them and everybody was gutted when we were put out of our home, nobody wanted us to go.

The Warkes still live in Newbuildings, but Jeanette returned to the Fountain as a community worker.

“The Dean of the Cathedral asked my husband to open up a youth club for young people at night, because he was worried about them getting caught up in paramilitary activity. That was the same year, 1972, and we’ve been here ever since.”

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