The secret government report that helped make peace walls permanent
In April 1971 Northern Ireland’s Minister for Home Affairs John Taylor submitted a report to Prime Minister Brian Faulkner entitled Future Policy on Areas of Confrontation. It is marked Secret and only 52 copies were made.
It is an extraordinary, depressing document, which not only gives a searing insight into the social unrest at the time, but is also a reminder of how little progress has been made in tackling many of the problems that the document identifies.
The report was the work of a joint working party comprising senior civil servants and police and army officers these included Ken, later Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and Major-General Thomas Acton, then director of operations for the Army.
The report set out to consider “existing areas of confrontation and peace lines and to advise as to future policy.”
As sectarian violence had spread throughout Belfast and Derry in the previous two years, barriers had sprung up between communities, sometimes constructed by residents, sometimes by the Army and police.
The report starts by briefly outlining the history of segregation and division in Northern Ireland, concluding that it was inevitable given by the presence of two “separate and distinct” communities and that there had been “no conscious effort” or “grand segregationist plan.”
As “minorities tend to cling together for protection and mutual comfort” it was natural that they would tend to settle around a church: and there were other reasons too. “To put it crudely, if Belfast’s Roman Catholic population were scattered evenly throughout all the wards of the city, that minority would end up with no (political) representation at all.”
It states that confrontations on the interfaces between working class communities in Belfast had been going on since the middle of the 19th Century and that these were so often the same streets blighted by conflict at the time of the report.
Ominously it concludes: “The problem has been persistent and recurrent and may not be eradicable even if some conscious central policy were designed to promote integration."
Taylor’s report then goes on to examine the peace lines themselves which it explains had been successful in so far as they had ensured that street clashes were between the security forces and “homogeneous” crowds rather than between communities.
But having conceded that it continues: “It is an ugly thing to see a barrier of this kind in the United Kingdom … It emphasises and institutionalises divisions … the abnormal can come to be taken for granted and the search for fundamental solutions set aside for another day.”
It is at this point that the report has resonance for the interface issues we face today. It states: “Nothing more rapidly and more dangerously heightens tension in an area of confrontation than a sectarian parade passing through it.
The following section is underlined:
“Unless parades can be kept away from major flashpoints, preferably by the voluntary co-operation of organisers, tension will inevitably rise again and any prospect of re-examining the need for peace lines will recede.”
Taylor and his colleagues agreed that improving community relations across the interfaces was possible and that there was a will for it, however that, for them, was a second phase: the first was to ensure that the “forces of lawful authority should everywhere be seen to be in command of the situation.”
The report’s main thrust is to inject security considerations into the re-development of Belfast, which was then just getting underway.
The "cordon sanitaire"
It argues that historic communities should not be broken up but instead populations should be reduced in those areas and amenities improved. It dismisses the idea of creating integrated communities on the grounds that that would only create more tension.
It states that communities will need to be brought together in different ways before integrated housing can be achieved and it specifically cites the education system as a means to achieve this.
In the meantime Taylor and his team say that future planning should provide “the maximum natural separation between the opposing areas through “some sort of cordon sanitaire.” By this it meant building factories and warehouses between conflicting areas, with high walls to “form natural barriers” and specifically states that the number of access roads between the Falls and Shankill should be “substantially reduced.”
Also in this context they specifically cite the Westlink as a means of creating a 100 yard wide cleared belt between communities and call for planners to create “natural” divisions between difficult areas by building new roads.
All these have, of course, come to pass.
So the Taylor report’s ultimate solution was in its own words “increasing, rather than discouraging segregation through the creation of natural barriers.”
The sole British government representative Anthony Hewins disagreed and issued his own minority report. He was unhappy at the prospect of increasing segregation.
“When a city is re-developed a pattern of life is laid down for at least a century… I find myself in disagreement at the proposals that the divisions in the community should be accepted as a feature of life which must inevitably persist for a hundred years or more. This seems a counsel of despair. The word ghetto has been lightly and loosely used in the past. These proposals would give the name substance, and would attract criticism from all over the world.”
In August 1971 the Heath government introduced internment, serious civil unrest ensued, with many thousands of residents in “mixed communities” being forced out of their homes, marking a disturbing new phase in what was then the largest forced migration of citizens in Europe since WW2. Stormont fell the following year, but the principles outlined in the report were applied.
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