Northern Ireland

NI state papers 1985/86: Irish push to knock down Divis flats

Divis Flats Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption The Irish government pressed for the demolition of Divis flats in west Belfast

Knocking down Divis high-rise flats in west Belfast would reduce the influence of "extremists" there, the Irish government argued in 1986.

But a senior member of the Stormont secretariat called that view "a little naive".

It would take more than the demolition of Divis to reduce the influence of Sinn Féin, he countered.

Details emerged in declassified files from 1986 released by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.

The papers chart the Irish government's desire to see the flats tumble.

From 1969, they had become a symbol of the Troubles and it was from there that widowed mother of 10, Jean McConville was taken and murdered by the IRA. She became known as one of the Disappeared.

In a note on the file dated 6 May 1986, S G Hewitt of the Northern Ireland Office told colleagues that he had learned from Michael Lillis of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs that the Irish intended to raise the question of Divis flats at an intergovernmental conference under the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Tenants living in 300 flats believed the structural flaws were beyond repair and that the best solution would be to bring them down.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Playing football outside Divis flats in west Belfast

"We believe the living conditions of Divis have allowed extremists to obtain an influence in the area that can and should be ended through the replacement of the complex," the Irish government said.

"The basic reason for the extremist influence lies in the alienation of the residents from their environment."

Bringing down the flats would send "a message of hope" it said and would "do much to increase confidence in constitutional politics".

However, Ronnie Spence of the Stormont Central Secretariat said replacement housing would cost £15m. In his view, such funds could be better used to help those on the waiting list.

He added: "The Irish belief that the demolition of the complex would reduce the influence of Sinn Féin is a little naive.

"Sinn Féin have been campaigning for demolition and would no doubt claim credit for it."

In a further note on the file, F McCann of the Department of the Environment agreed that the Irish contention that demolition would strike a blow at paramilitary influence was arguable.

"My own belief is that while Divis is a focal point for agitation in the lower Falls area and, therefore, provides a rallying point for PIRA [the Provisional IRA], it would take a lot more than the development of Divis to remove the hold which the extremists have on the hearts and minds of people in this area," he said.

He favoured the refurbishment of the flats rather than their removal.

In the end, the demolition of the flats was agreed.

More on this story