Belfast Telegraph

Hopes raised and dashed: why city was a powder keg

The standard narrative has Derry's Catholics starved of housing and jobs in the 1960s. Not true, says Brian Walker

There have been many calls for us to confront our past in relation to the recent conflict. Here is an area where historians can assist to help us understand what happened.

Sometimes myths and half-truths serve to obscure the past. There are political events in the 1960s which many unionists and loyalists have misunderstood; there are also matters and developments from this period which nationalists and republicans have misunderstood.

There is much misunderstanding about the situation in Derry/Londonderry pre-1968. It has often been claimed that Catholics and nationalists could not get houses and that the Stormont government starved the North West of industrial development.

This is wrong. In fact, there was a "vast programme" of new housing in Derry which had greatly benefited the Catholic population of the city.

The evidence for this is varied, but clear. First, anyone can see the pre-1969 housing in areas such as the Creggan.

Secondly, the Cameron Commission of 1969 refers specifically to the "vast programme" of new housing in Derry, especially in the south ward where two-thirds of Derry's Catholics resided.

From 1947 onwards, Derry Corporation and the Housing Trust had built many new homes, including the Creggan estate in the 1950s and the Rossville Street redevelopment in the early 1960s.

In her autobiography, Dana (Rosemary Brown) records how her family first lived in a new house in the Creggan and then moved, in 1967, to the Rossville Street flats. She talks of how these flats were "much admired when they were first built".

Why then was there a problem about housing in Derry? The reason was, as Cameron noted in 1969, "in recent years" the unionist-controlled corporation curtailed any new building to maintain its already weak electoral position, maintained by a gerrymandering of the wards.

After the early 1960s, the corporation stopped all new housing development, because the only available space was in areas which would affect the electoral balance in the city. Between 1961 and 1966, the population grew by nearly 2,000.

This created a crisis, because there were many families, particularly Catholic families, which needed new housing. In 1965, John Hume put forward a scheme for a major building project, but this was rejected, because it was in a unionist-controlled ward.

There were people still living in some of the temporary accommodation built at Springtown camp during the war and slum properties needed to be replaced.

The point, however, is that a crisis arose in the late 1960s in relation to housing for Catholics in Derry, not because there was little such provision for them, but because, after considerable such provision, this ended abruptly, causing well-deserved criticism.

What about jobs in Derry in this period?

It is sometimes claimed that Derry always suffered from unemployment and the Government failed to bring industry to the city.

This is incorrect. In fact, it could be argued that the Brookeborough Government of the 1950s was more successful in supporting jobs in the city than the current power-sharing Executive has been, in spite of its great efforts.

In November 1955, the Press, including the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish News, noted that there was "an employment boom" and "abundant work" in the city, with very little unemployment.

This was due not only to the presence of more than 30 shirt factories, but also to the success of Government economic policies in attracting to Derry a number of important overseas firms. These included Birmingham Sound Reproducers (BSR) and, later, Du Pont.

As a measure of the relative success of Government policies in the North West, we can observe that between 1926 and 1971 the population of Derry city and Londonderry county grew by nearly 30%, while the population of Donegal fell by nearly 30%.

BSR had received Government grants to set up in Derry and would receive a second round of support after it changed its name to Monarch Electric.

In early 1967, however, after the Government refused to give more grants, the firm closed down its Derry factory and relocated the work out of the country.

BSR had been the main male employer in the city, employing, at one stage, more than 2,000 men. This action by BSR not only caused severe unemployment, but destroyed people's expectations.

By the late-1960s, unemployment was a serious problem, but this had not been the case earlier.

In 1968, the crisis in Derry was not caused by long-term housing, or employment, problems, but by new problems. People's expectations had been raised and were now dashed.

This made the situation all the more volatile. Of course, there remained the old problem of the political control of the city.

All these factors provided ample grounds for the rise of a civil rights movement.

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