‘High Flats’ demolition key issue at time of 1986 conference

Rossville Flats
Rossville Flats

State papers from 1985/86 newly-released under the 30/20 year rule refer to the proposed demolition of the ‘High Flats’ in Rossville Street and Divis and how the Irish Government of the time felt knocking them down would reduce the “influence of Sinn Féin.”

Amongst the documents released is a paper, which was prepared by Dublin ahead of the Anglo Irish Conference of 1986.

It includes a response from London alongside a synopsis of the approach being taken by the Department of the Envrionment (DoE) and the Housing Executive and “correspondence regarding the decision to demolish the Divis Flat in Belfast and the Rossville Flats in Derry.”

According to the documents Dublin believed poor conditions in the high rise accommodation were allowing “extremists to obtain an influence in the area that can and should be ended through the replacement of the complex” due to the “alienation of the residents from their environment.”

The condition of the flats was something that had exercised the Irish Foreign Minister Peter Barry since shortly after he assumed office in 1982.

For example, in 1983, according to a briefing note released by Dublin under its 30 year rule the Fine Gael Minister claimed renovations to the Rossville Flats, were being carried out after lobbying from Martin McGuinness, and that this was allowing Sinn Féin take electoral advantage.

But by 1986, in advance of the Anglo-Irish Conference, Stormont officials were sceptical about whether the existence of the flats was of any special benefit to Sinn Féin.

“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,” the newly-declassified documents state.

As it transpired both the Rossville Flats and most of the Divis Flats were soon afterwards slated for demolition.

Mr Barry ultimately claimed this as a victory as the former UUP MP Clifford Forsythe referred to in the House of Commons in 1987.
“The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (SDLP MP, Seamus Mallon) referred to the Divis flats, which are to be demolished.

“He did not refer to the Rossville flats, which I understand are in the same position. Who made that decision?

“Was it made, as Mr Barry claims, by the Anglo-Irish conference? “Was it made by the Northern Ireland Office or, as someone else has claimed, by the Housing Executive?

“If it was made by the Housing Executive, that is a complete U-turn - if I may use a phrase that is not particularly welcome on the Conservative Benches - from what was said by the Housing Executive board and its officers - that they had decided not to demolish Divis flats.

“ After the Anglo-Irish conference and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, we suddenly discovered that the Divis flats and the Rossville flats are to be demolished.

“Mr Barry announces it in Dublin, and says that he is claiming the credit because it was achieved through the Anglo-Irish conference. “Perhaps, when he winds up the debate, the Minister will put on record who made that decision.”

Mr Forsythe’s U-turn remark was a reference to the previously stated position of the Government that the flats complexes were structurally sound, that the Housing Executive had put forward proposals for extensive refurbishment and that if the sites were cleared, more than half of the residents could not be rehoused in traditional houses.

Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP had been campaigning for better housing for the residents of the ‘High Flats’ at the time.