Ministers and mandarins decided in 1993 that although it was desirable to halt the Protestant exodus from Londonderry’s west bank, radical and expensive measures to do so were not justified, declassified papers reveal.
The then secretary of state, Sir Patrick Mayhew, made the decision in the presence of senior officials including the then head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir David Fell, after a team of civil servants had met a number of people in Londonderry to discuss the issue.
At the time, there were reported to be up to 1,500 Protestants on the west bank of the Foyle, with about half of those in the Fountain Estate – 25 years earlier there had been up to 18,000 Protestants on the west bank. Now the Fountain has about 250 Protestant residents.
Civil servants spent considerable time in the summer of 1994 considering whether they should attempt to stem the flow of Protestants out of the area, prompted by the loss of the seat of the final unionist councillor on the west bank.
One Protestant resident told the officials that in her eyes “anyone voting Sinn Fein wants to kill me”.
In July 1993 the issue was discussed at a high-level meeting including Sir Patrick Mayhew, the head of the civil service and other NIO ministers.
In a record of the meeting, Sir Patrick’s private secretary said that “it was difficult to see how the claim could be made that the Protestants were being driven out, rather than just moving away. In discussion, it was suggested that this was an irreversible trend.
“The age structure would ensure that there was an increasingly elderly population and it was very much open to question if large amounts of public money invested in the area would reverse the trend.”
The note recorded that among some “useful developments” was the construction of a new primary school which would provide nursery education in the area for the first time “and may therefore induce young people to stay”.
Sir Patrick’s private secretary added: “The Secretary of State, in conclusion, observed that this decline had been going on for over 20 years and there was little the government could do to reverse it.
“It was essential to proceed with the primary school and nursery facility and for the Housing Executive to move with all speed and skill in the Fountain area ... for the moment, the case for injecting large sums of money into the area was not proven”.
The previous month, S Quinn in Stormont’s Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU) sent a memo to colleagues entitled “West of the Foyle: The Future of the Protestant Community”.
The document recorded how “the past 20 years has seen a dramatic decline in the number of Protestants living on the west bank in Derry”.
He said that “one estimate suggested a total number of 1,300-1,500 of voting age, about half of whom live in or around the Fountain Estate with the remainder scattered in the rural areas running up to the border and in the Culmore Road area”.
Mr Quinn said that the previous month the last unionist councillor on the west bank, David Davis, had lost his seat “despite the efforts of the Boundary Commission to maximise his prospects”. That reference to the Boundary Commission was scored out by hand.
Mr Quinn and Peter May, who is now the most senior civil servant in Stormont’s Department of Justice, visited the city that month and met with the former independent unionist councillor.
A note of the conversation with Mr Davis, who was described as a moderate unionist, said that “many had left the west bank because of the good new housing on offer elsewhere and the uncomfortableness felt by unionists living in an area with an overwhelming nationalist ethos.
“Davis himself had left some 10 years previously. The attacks by PIRA on the Protestant areas had been prevalent but had now practically stopped.”
The then SDLP councillor and future MP Mark Durkan, who also met the civil servants, said that Mr Davis had lost seat partly due to “Sinn Fein vote stealing”.
Mr Durkan also said that there should be an objective “to keep the Protestant community on [the] west side as far as possible”. He noted that there had been a particularly low electoral turnout from the Fountain Estate.
William Temple of the Diamond Trust, a body which was involved in attempting to rejuvenate the area, was the only person who the officials met that said the west bank Protestant community was “confident”.
The then DUP councillor Gregory Campbell told the two officials that the population move had been because of the IRA campaign and that there was also a perception of the council being “anti-unionist”.
The future DUP MP for East Londonderry said that the government had “18-24 months to make something happen in the Fountain area. If not, the outflow would become irreversible”.
HUME AND DURKAN BOTH LOBBIED ON BEHALF OF PROTESTANTS
The then SDLP leader John Hume and the man who would succeed him as leader and MP for Foyle, Mark Durkan, both lobbied the government on behalf of west bank Protestants.
The files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-year-rule include a June 1993 memo, from Tony McCusker, the head of Stormont’s Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU).
He wrote: “I was speaking to Mark Durkan at a dinner in Stormont House last night and he voiced his concern about the position of Protestants on the west bank of the Foyle following the local government elections; there are now no unionist representatives in the council from the west bank.
“He was concerned that Protestants on the west bank would feel even more isolated and marginalised because of the lack of representation and he had been turning over in his mind some possibilities.”
Mr Durkan’s suggestions included the council’s community relations programme being used to assist Protestants, the appointment of a community relations officer to specifically work with Protestant groups or that the government “should now try to find a suitable public appointment for David Davis to ensure that he remains in public life”.
The same Northern Ireland Office file also contains a note of a July 1993 meeting of ministers and senior civil servants during which NIO minister Michael Ancram said that SDLP leader John Hume “had made strong representations for the government to do something in the Protestant West bank area and had encouraged ministers to meet the Diamond Trust”.