Northern Ireland news

State papers: Memo notes 'ghetto mentality' of west Belfast

Tom King speaking to journalists and walking with bodyguards at Windsor House in March 1986
By Éamon Phoenix in Belfast

THE head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service spoke of west Belfast having a "ghetto mentality" and being alienated from "normal civilised behaviour".

Sir Ken Bloomfield made his observations in a key memo to secretary of state Tom King amid efforts to tackle poverty, unemployment and paramilitarism in Catholic west Belfast.

But Bloomfield feared that government attempts to regenerate the area would provoke a "crude political reaction [from unionism] on the lines of, 'Do you have to kill British soldiers ... to benefit from a cornucopia of assistance?'"

The discussions are revealed in declassified files from the late 1980s.

A report on west Belfast noted that it contained 10 per cent of the Northern Ireland population while 73 per cent of the population was Roman Catholic.

While 35 per cent of the economically-active population in the area was Catholic, "Protestants are less likely to be unemployed than Catholics".

Catholic male unemployment in west Belfast was 47 per cent – double that of Northern Ireland as a whole.

In an April 1987 memo for King, Bloomfield noted that other areas showed many of the acute social and economic problems of Catholic west Belfast

But he added: "What makes the area unique is the scale and concentration of these problems and their very close association with grave political and security difficulties; the strength of PIRA/Sinn Féin and their influence in the area; the alienation of a large section of the population from the institutions of government (and indeed, in some respects, from normal civilised behaviour); the ghetto mentality and the widespread sense of hopelessness and lack of faith in the government's interest in the problem."

He wrote that even the most moderate people in west Belfast "tend to believe government neglect for the area and point to the contrast with the millions ... spent on maintaining employment in Protestant east Belfast."

Bloomfield noted that the British government were to discuss Catholic west Belfast at the Intergovernmental Conference with Irish Ministers.

However, he warned of negative reaction in unionism to any effort to focus resources on the area.

He wrote: "There will be some crude political reaction on the lines of 'Do you have to kill British soldiers in full public view in order to benefit from a cornucopia of assistance?'

"It would be better if some government efforts were 'not too vigorously trumpeted': If civilian officials are perceived by the IRA to be [involved] in a strategy of 'killing terrorism by kindness' they could be at actual personal risk."

In June 1988, following this advice, King announced support for a major development programme for Catholic west Belfast.

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