Defensive Planning - how the military shaped Belfast

5 Jan 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 8 Jan 2015

Exclusive: Scope has unearthed new evidence about secret security force oversight over planning decisions during the Troubles and the lasting division this has caused.

Recently declassified documents are slowly revealing the true extent to which security forces manipulated planning decisions in Belfast during the Troubles, effectively isolating significant parts of north and west Belfast.

There have been rumours of such policies for decades, rumours that have been derided by the authorities. But academic researcher Tim Cunningham is slowly piecing together the evidence that demonstrates that the modern of shape of Belfast has been heavily influenced by military thinking – so-called “Defensive Planning.”

In the past there have been occasional examples of journalists uncovering evidence of the extent to which the security forces influenced planning decisions. The most remarkable was the Army memo entitled “Operation Playground” which was uncovered by French journalist Roger Faligot in the early 1980s. It proposed the designing of playgrounds for the Unity Flats and New Lodge areas as a “joint military RUC and civil project with the dual aim of creating an open area for children’s games while at the same time containing the area.” Although civilian planners would get input into the plans the main controlling agency was the Royal Marine Commando Community Relations Committee.

Faligot’s revelation did not get widespread coverage, presumably because it was originally published in French.

In 1982 Derek Alcorn published a piece in Scope which is reproduced here. He had evidence that a row of houses had been removed from redevelopment proposals for Ardoyne at the insistence of security forces, and without the Housing Executive’s knowledge. He also reprised Guardian allegations that there were more to footpaths linking cul de sacs in Poleglass than met the eye. Their foundations had been built strong enough for military vehicles.

Alcorn also alleged the existence of a secretive Security Committee on Housing at Stormont.

At the time his contention that security forces were overseeing planning decisions was derided by the Northern Ireland Office.

However the recent declassification of a number of documents is beginning to suggest that Alcorn’s original story was correct and that security involvement in planning decisions went far beyond experts had previously realised.

The first major piece of evidence for this is the secret Taylor report of 1971. In essence it called for “the maximum natural separation between the opposing areas through “some sort of cordon sanitaire.”

This involved building warehouses and factories to separate areas, divert roads to prevent clashes and reduce access roads between “opposing” areas.

It specifically cites the Urban Motorway Project (now called the Westlink) as a means of creating a 100 yard cleared belt between communities and also calls for planners to create more “natural” divisions by creating new roads.

Stormont fell the following year so Taylor and his colleagues did not have the opportunity to follow up on their report.

However Cunningham, through scouring the Public Records Office has uncovered some remarkable documents which demonstrate how “defensive planning” subsequently worked. His full analysis can be found here.

Cunningham has uncovered declassified minutes from the shadowy Standing Committee on Security Implications of Housing Problems in Belfast (SCH), which is presumably the secret body that Alcorn had got wind of. And sure enough it did not seem to have Housing Executive representatives. There were however members from the RUC, and the Army was represented by Brigadier Crowfoot from the 39th Infantry Brigade.

The minutes are fascinating. Security personnel, for example, argued strongly that pub licences should be granted in Poleglass in order to fend off the threat of the establishment of drinking clubs run by paramilitaries; recommended shops be built to front both roads when the redevelopment of the Newtownards Road, Seaforde Street Short Strand area was re-developed and, most interesting of all, there is evidence that the British Army, through Brigadier Crowfoot, gave specific approval to the demolition of flats at Turf Lodge, on the grounds that construction of two-storey housing would be more easy to secure from a military point of view.

This last case is especially fascinating because it is often cited as one of the most successful campaigns in Northern Ireland in recent decades on behalf of local communities seeking to improve housing conditions. Sometimes, it would appear, the security forces and local residents had common objectives.

Now that it is becoming clear that the 39th Infantry Brigade and the Royal Marine Commandos had at least as much say in how Belfast has been planned and redeveloped as any elected politician, or indeed the Housing Executive, we are left with some interesting issues.

Firstly the divisions created, often for short term military advantage are very long term in effect. You might be able to bring down a peace wall over time, but it’s hard to see, for example, how you can get rid of a motorway that cuts off swathes of the city from each other. So whilst decisions taken may or may not have been justified at the time, their impact will be with us for generations to come.

Secondly the fact that the military had oversight over city planning emphasises once again the very different challenges we face in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK and indeed Ireland. There is multiple deprivation on either side of the peace walls and the “natural” boundaries created by military strategists amongst others have left some communities cut off and locked into poverty.

Thirdly it reminds us of the fact that the British government and its security forces were also parties to the conflict, and when it comes to investing for the future it seems remarkable that the secretary of state, prime minister and government seem to have completely forgotten their own government’s role in, quite literally, being architects of division.

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