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Why terminally-ill John's heart is in Belfast Divis Tower

Once one of Belfast's least desirable addresses, a transformed Divis Tower now boasts a waiting list of tenants. Despite a shocking murder there this week, it remains an oasis for many residents

By Ivan Little

Published 09/11/2016

John Leathem, chairman of the Divis Tower Falls Residents’ Association, with his dog Junior at work in his office
John Leathem, chairman of the Divis Tower Falls Residents’ Association, with his dog Junior at work in his office
Soldiers begin work on dismantling the Army’s observation post in 2005
John Leathem, Chairman of the Divis Tower Housing Association

Terminally-ill cancer sufferer John Leathem has told doctors he doesn't want to know how long he has left to live.

But he has no doubts about where he hopes to die. And it's not in a hospice but rather in his 19th floor flat in what was once one of Belfast's least desirable addresses - Divis Tower in west Belfast.

For John says he came home to die there four years ago.

He says: "I'd moved away from Divis because I thought I was going to live in a fancier place near the city centre.

"But once I was diagnosed with cancer, I realised that home really is where the heart is. And my heart was definitely in Divis.

"I asked myself where I wanted to spend my last days and my answer was Divis Tower and I was lucky to be able to return."

John hasn't been taking things easy, however. He's the chairman of the Divis Tower Falls Residents' Association, which has an office on the ground floor where in recent days he's been dealing with the fall-out from the death of one of his residents.

Police launched a murder probe after the body of 62-year-old James Hughes was found in a flat on the 14th floor of the tower on Sunday night and two police Land Rovers were still outside yesterday as investigations went on.

But John says the death and the arrest of another resident have been completely out of sync with the modern day complex which some people used to call Divis-ion Flats in the dark days of the Troubles.

John lived through the worst of the bad times when the IRA and the British Army were neighbours at war in the flats, but he says it's a different world now, with tourists even dropping by for a look at history.

Not that there's much to see any more. The Government bowed to pressure to demolish the majority of the flats two decades ago after living conditions became deplorable - and only the tower was left standing.

One reminder of the conflict is a plaque on the tower's exterior wall, which is dedicated to the memory of nine-year-old Paul Rooney who, on August 15, 1969 became the first child to die in the Troubles, hit in the head by a bullet from an RUC weapon.

An off-duty British soldier was also shot dead near his family home at Divis Flats which, throughout the conflict, were a battleground

But for John Leathem the flats became something of an unlikely oasis. Before moving to the Divis area, he had been brought up in a number of children's homes where abuse and not care was on the minds of people who should have been looking after him and other boys.

Fifty-nine-year-old John, who self-harmed in his youth, says he was 'saved' by a woman who reared him in Divis Street as her own son and after she turned his life around he moved into a flat of his own in the complex.

John, who is gay, now lives on the 19th floor of Divis which for years during the violence was part of a base for British soldiers in a permanent observation post which had high-powered surveillance cameras trained on nearby homes.

John says the tower is now home to people from a whole range of different countries around the world as well as locals and he praises the Housing Executive for taking the lead in transforming the 86 flats to such an extent that there's even a waiting list of people wanting to move in.

Families with small children are discouraged from settling in Divis Tower and instead couples and single people - over 35 - tend to live there.

"I call it Heartbreak Hotel," says John. "Many of us here have had our heartaches in the past.

"But despite all that, we're largely a very happy bunch in the tower which I think is the apple in the eye, a centre-point of west Belfast. We also have a garden which is our pride and joy just like the rest of the tower, where we have secure parking for residents and a sense of community.

"We all look out for one another. Everyone here knows everyone else, which is rare in this day and age."

A team of concierges provide a round-the-clock service and there are cameras available to monitor any breaches of the regulations in the tower.

John says: "The concierges are very important people. They are based at the front and keep an eye on people going in and out. But if some residents aren't seen for a day or two they will make inquiries about them to ensure they're all right.

"Noise isn't tolerated here. We have some residents who like a drink, but what they do behind their own doors is their own business, just so long as no-one else is inconvenienced. Who am I to judge?

"But if there is a conflict I will support any action that the Executive take."

There's been speculation that the control of Divis Tower may move from the Housing Executive to another housing association.

But John insists that residents would have to agree to the transfer. "And that simply isn't going to happen. Not in my lifetime anyway," says John, who adds that his association is currently in the middle of negotiations with the Executive about a massive upgrading programme to install new heating, windows and insulation in the tower which dates back to the 1960s, when Divis Flats were built to rehouse thousands of people who lived in virtual slums in a warren of streets in the Lower Falls area. Taking his lead from Europe, Scottish architect Frank Robertson designed the 200ft high tower and smaller blocks spreading out all around it.

Even though the residents weren't consulted about the plans, there was still a sense of excitement about seeing the construction work starting in 1966, with promises of bathrooms and hot water and even toilets that didn't require a trip outside to a back yard.

However, the first move by residents into Divis coincided with the upsurge of the Troubles which were to halt plans to add another six tower blocks right along the Falls Road up towards the Royal Victoria Hospital.

John Leathem recalls the tensions between residents and the soldiers in the flats, especially when it came to who had priority in the lifts - on the days that they were working of course.

"I used to call the police when the Army insisted they should go first before the tenants because we were paying rent, they weren't."

Eventually the Army had no option but to helicopter supplies in for their troops for whom the lifts became too dangerous to use.

"But I can honestly say I never experienced any real hatred among most people who lived in the flats towards the soldiers," says John, who never imagined that one day he would take up occupancy of the soldiers' space.

The Housing Executive spent a million pounds making the flats habitable again and John says of his high living: "I call it my penthouse and I tell people I have the best panoramic view in Belfast. And I want to die in that flat, not in a hospice.

"There were times in one of the homes I was in, that I used to sleep in a hen house which I'd cleaned out. So the tower is luxury to me and it means the world to me. It's my home, it's my community and I love the people here to bits.

"I'm proud to say that our association is often asked by people from other communities around Belfast for advice about housing matters."

As for his own future, John says he isn't afraid to discuss death. "Everyone will die at some point. I just don't want to know when I might go. I think that's the best way, because I would only sit and fret.

"As it is, the doctors and nurses keep in regular touch with me about my condition and my medications. I had an awfully bad week last week. I felt really ill, but the cancer teams helped me."

John says his faith is important to him, adding: "I wake up in the morning and I say to Our Lady that I am going down to the office and tell her that if she could assist me with my cases, I would very much appreciate it.

"At night-time I say: 'God, it's your turn.' I tell him I am going to go to sleep and I ask him to give me a good night."

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