Page last updated at 09:59 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Northern Ireland 1979 archives



By Dr Eamon Phoenix

The Thatcher government was warned by a leading Stormont official in 1979 that any return of major powers such as housing allocation to local government in Northern Ireland would be disastrous to a long-term settlement, according to government files.

Riot in Derry's Bogside
Local government discrimination was thought to have contributed to the outbreak of the Troubles

In the late 1970s the Ulster Unionists under James Molyneaux pressed Westminster to introduce a new tier of local government in Northern Ireland with real powers.

However, in a trenchant memo to direct rule ministers on 7 November, 1979, senior Stormont official Ken Bloomfield warned the issue of "discrimination in local government has not gone away".

Writing to the permanent under-secretary at the NIO, Mr Bloomfield highlighted the role of discrimination at local council level in the outbreak of the Troubles in 1968.

"No-one who has lived through the recent history of Northern Ireland can fail to be aware that discrimination in local government contributed to the origins of our present disturbances," he said.

"Such discrimination was not universal and its extent of impact were frequently exaggerated; but the basic judgement of the Cameron Commission (1969) - that discrimination by some local authorities, particularly in the areas of council employment and housing, contributed significantly to a build-up of resentment - remains valid."

Mr Bloomfield warned any attempt to widen the responsibilities of local councils in the north could involve a return to old evils

In his view, to avoid a recurrence, the UK government had acted to withdraw functions from local government and transfer them to central government or statutory bodies and by providing a series of specific remedies against religious and political discrimination.

Mr Bloomfield warned any attempt to widen the responsibilities of local councils in Northern Ireland "could involve a return to old evils".

Reviewing the measures taken since 1973 to outlaw discrimination, Mr Bloomfield felt bodies such as SACHR (the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights) and the FEA (Fair Employment Agency) had failed to prove their credibility.

Turning to district councils, the official felt that, "while some councils have reached a reasonable modus vivendi, others appear to have learnt nothing over the last 10 years.

"Blatantly offensive sectarian and political statements continue to be made by a minority of councillors. There continue to be allegations that particular council appointments have been made or not made for reasons of discrimination.

"There was, too, the suggestion that council decisions about projects and priorities are influenced by discriminatory motives (for example, a fair wind for leisure centre in a majority area and the reluctance to proceed with one in a minority area).

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield
Ken Bloomfield argued against restoring local government powers

"If a council wants to be subtle it can readily cloak discriminatory attitudes in talk about priorities and resources," he wrote.

Mr Bloomfield recognised the difficulties involved: "None of this is easy territory. Few politicians in recent times in Northern Ireland had been outflanked on the liberal side."

In conclusion, he concluded that "the impact of unchanged attitudes on restored powers could be disastrous".

The official's advice had a profound influence on the Conservative administration which resisted unionist pressure to return powers to local authorities in Northern Ireland.



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