Declassified Files: West Belfast likened to the Forbidden City in China

There was a heavy security presence in west Belfast
There was a heavy security presence in west Belfast

A Government official felt like he had slipped into an “alternative universe” when he visited west Belfast, according to a memo in declassified NIO file.

In a confidential memo from 1991, PN Bell of the NIO’s Security Policy and Operations Division described his tour around west Belfast with a ‘civil representative’ as “one of being a character in a science fiction novel who had slipped into an alternative universe”.

The trip was an attempt to acquire “visual impressions of places with which I am more familiar on paper, but without receiving these through a police or army filter”.

Despite his “reasonable knowledge” of Belfast, the official visited areas which were “almost as strange to me as the Forbidden City would have been to a Chinese before 1911.”

He added: “I think I am not alone in Belfast in having this view of the West of the City.”

One trip to Ballymurphy was described as “an area which I thought as frightening as it was depressing; it could serve without alteration as a Derek Jarman film set”.

Later he discovered that the ‘Rough Guide to Ireland’ “also regards this as the most depressing part of the entire City” – a fact he found only “slightly” reassuring.

His other main impression was “how oppressive it must be, most notably in the Clonard area, to live in a small street right up against a peace line”.

He noted surprise at not being prepared for “just how different areas were”.

One view that made an impression was the redevelopment being carried out by the NIHE “at the foot of the rotting cliff of Divis.”

It was, in Mr Bell’s opinion, “beautiful”.

“I was struck not for the first time just what the Housing Executive has done to improve the basic fabric of Belfast and Northern Ireland generally.”

Mr Bell also recorded that the security force presence was unavoidable “from the futuristic/medieval security force bases round the area to the high level of patrolling that day.”

Yet despite this, the soldiers appeared to go unnoticed by the locals, something that was seen as a “good sign” by the touring British official.