Among the newly declassified files released in Belfast this week is one relating to the development of peacelines in the city since the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969.
The issue was taken up in 1993 by then Northern secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew who established a working group on sectarian segregation.
Officials sought to identify the existing peacelines and consider their possible replacement by “alternative means of segregation”. The group included John Steele, a senior Northern Ireland Office security official, and Tony McCusker of the Central Community Relations Council as well as a police representative.
The group identified 14 peacelines in Belfast, noting: “The general perception on the Shankill Road side of the peaceline is fear of encroachment… There is an overall feeling of being under siege - that expanding Catholic West Belfast has designs on their territory and the suspicion that tracts of derelict land on the Protestant side would be incorporated into Catholic West Belfast by moving the peaceline.” There was no support for the removal of the barriers.
In a note to McCusker, dated October 6th, 1993, Eric Dalzell, the principal civil representative based at Military HQ in Lisburn noted that “throughout all peaceline locations both communities are completely polarised and the vast majority have no desire whatever to mix with the other… There is also the ‘not an inch’ syndrome where, particularly in Loyalist areas, the most important aspect of peacelines is territory: ‘What we have we hold!’.”
In their unpublished confidential report, dated February 1994, the officials stated that “in simple terms the problem was one of the declining Protestant area with a low level of housing demand alongside overcrowded Catholic areas with a high level of demand”.
“Belfast Catholics are perceived as the growing group producing a threat in pressure localities in the city, particularly North Belfast.” As a result, the officials advised that “for the foreseeable future… the Government should not contemplate a solution to Catholic housing by pushing the Protestant community further back” though it would “eventually have to confront this issue”.