West Belfast was bleak and poor, but never uncivilized

Posted By: September 01, 2016

“Members of Congress must fully appreciate that English rule in Northern Ireland was implemented and safeguarded by a profound and systematic anti-Catholicism.This is perfectly illustrated by the comment of the former  Head of the Civil Service—that Catholic West Belfast is “ alienated … from normal civilized behavior.” 

That is the language of the anti-Catholic, anti-Semite, anti-Arab, anti-Black… The language of contempt, racism/sectarianism, and oppression.The current Civil Service should denounce and disassociate itself from such venomous language.”
—— Fr. Sean Mc Manus

Allison Morris. Irish News (Belfast). Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Belfast of my childhood was bleak. There’s no point in trying to dress it up as anything other than that. It was grey and at times terrifying but it was also all I knew.

Being a child growing up in what was then effectively a war zone isn’t in any way normal.

Our house regularly shook from the tremor of bomb blasts. At times I was woken with the shudder of the rattling windows or the sound of automatic gunfire.

The deaths of the hunger strikers were marked by the banging of old metal bin lids on the pavements outside our house.

The first dead body I ever saw was that of Kieran Doherty, his family lived at the top of our street and I could hear the adults around me speaking about him in hushed tones.

I’ve always been nosey, an essential quality in a reporter. I sneaked away and positioned myself in the queue of mourners outside the Doherty home.

I’d my wee brother by the hand – I was supposed to be minding him – when I reached the top of the queue a man said to another, “there’re two kids here, what will I do?”

I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday he said, “let them in, she should see, everyone should see”.

Watching my dad cry when my cousin was murdered. Being stopped and having your school bag searched by British soldiers on your way to school. The endless funerals, there were so many funerals.

It’s not a normal way to grow up, the look of horror on my own children’s faces when I tell them stories of my childhood makes me realise how far removed it is from the life they’ve lived post-peace process.

When I look at what is happening in the world today, the plight of children in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, little bodies washed up on beaches and realise I was actually quite lucky. Their wee lives make my childhood look like a Disney cartoon.

Then last week the release of state papers from 1987 brought it all back to me, the stuff seared in my memory and some events that had been lost in the annals of time.

It was a time when the world I lived in was filled with death and destruction but as a teenager, my thoughts were filled with discos, boys, and puffball mini skirts.

Sir Ken Bloomfield, a man I interviewed at home a few years ago and found to be welcoming, full of stories about the fascinating experiences he’d had in his lengthy career, made the most horrendous slur on my community.

In a memo to former secretary of state Tom King the then head of the civil service said west Belfast had a “ghetto mentality” and a large section of the population was alienated from “normal civilised behaviour”.

And I didn’t recognise the place he was referring to. Abnormal yes, but there were historic, political reasons for that. Terrified, yes, poor, most definitely, it was an economic waste ground, although current deprivation statistics would indicate there’s much still to be done in that respect. But uncivilised – that I dispute.

We were raised with food in our bellies, shoes on our feet and a sense of right and wrong.

My mother would have walked us around burning buses to make sure we availed of an education never offered to her, not even a riot would deter her.

This description of my friends and family as ‘uncivilised’ angered me in a way a 30-year-old dispatch never should.

The memo was, in fact, saying that any investment in west Belfast needs to take into account the wider perception of the people who live there.

Mr. King was warned not to anger the unionist community by being seen to reward the poor people of my community.

Look at it like that and what chance did we really stand? Being misruled by people who treated us like savages and penalised us so as not to anger a unionist community they had helped pit against us.

When those who govern are conspiring against an entire community and yet still we thrived and survived, that’s something to look back on with pride.