The Arts Hang on in a Dark Time

New documents shed light on 1975

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland unveiled its yearly treasure trove of documents opened after the 30 years rule. The Record Office is the depository for government papers relating to all elements of life here in Northern Ireland. Due to the rules governing secret papers, the documents are stored for use by civil servants and then given over to the care of PRONI. The annual opening of government papers sees the public being allowed to see the inner workings of politicians and civil servants in the past.

1975: A Turning Point in our History
1975 was a key year in the development of what we now know as ‘the Troubles’. After the disappointments of the preceding year, when representational government had disintegrated during May’s Ulster Worker’s Council Strike, the Government of the time, represented by the then Secretary of State, Labour MP Merlyn Rees created a Constitutional Convention. The Convention was appointed to attempt to find a system of government that would ‘be acceptable to a large section of Northern Ireland’s society’. It was not a success.

A Christmas truce in 1974 was extended by the then Southern-based leadership of the IRA, then called off in mid-January, and reaffirmed in February. It was to last officially, but in reality, while the British Army and the IRA were at ceasefire, 1975 was the scene for furious sectarian and internecine blood-letting. The IRA, INLA, UVF and UDA and the security forces were to kill 206 people in the calendar year.

The IRA ceasefire with the British was shaky from its start, with many Northern-based members disagreeing with the policy. The Southern leadership of veterans Ruiari O Bradiagh and Daithi O Conaill being vilified for allowing the organisation to become involved in a sectarian bloodbath. Two of the most vocal critics were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness, later to displace the older leadership in the early eighties.

1975: A Bad year for Culture
Culturally, Northern Ireland saw hard times along with the rest of society. Many of the working theatres and music venues were closed due to the troubles. The only bright point was the Lyric presentation of Patrick Galvin’s We Do It For Love. The play was written around recordings the playwright had made in working-class areas on both sides of the divide. The play reflected the events on the streets around the theatre and was reportedly seen by 20,000 people.

Miami ShowbandUndoubtedly, the most tragic event for the artistic community was the killing of the Miami Showband in July of the year. Three band members were killed, and one was seriously injured. The shock amongst artists at the time was palpable, with the realisation that they too seemed to be targets in the escalating madness enveloping the country.

Brightening Up Ulster
The papers released by the Public Record Office concern mostly the political machinations of the time. However, as the Secretariat at Stormont was the effective government  in 1975, culture and the arts were represented amongst the documents. Civil servants tend to write in particular about money and the minute details involved running the country, but culture allowed them to give full rein to their creativity, as can be seen in the ‘Brightening Up Ulster’ files.

Some of the most bizarre papers uncovered at PRONI concern the never realised campaign. During the 1975 ceasefire, civil servants were canvassed for their opinions by the Chairman of the Information Policy Coordination Committee, Michael Cudlipp. In his memo, he outlined a scheme to bring Morecambe and Wise, then Britain’s top entertainers to perform in Belfast. Stressing the need for his colleagues to think really big, Cudlipp then suggested recruiting Frank Sinatra to sing in the province.

Suggestions came thick and fast from other civil servants, with one committee member suggesting an inter-town It’ s A Knockout competition, hosted by Eddie Waring. The competition was a popular television treat at the time, and it was thought that an inter-town version would prove popular. This vision was to come true many years later, with the now famous ‘Town Challenge’ series of programmes in the late 1990s.

Input from other civil servants saw suggestions of a ‘Miss Good Cheer’ beauty pageant and a ‘Sociable Week’, with the theme tune being ‘Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Down, and Start All over Again.’ This was part of a ‘Good Cheer Campaign’ at which the Women’s Institute would hold ‘Good Cheer Conferences’.

Others recommended the return of International football as being the most meaningful way of normalizing life in the province. Still others saw a resurrecting of the success of Ulster ‘71 (at which 700,000 people had seen events during a year-long festival held throughout the province), as being the way forward.

These ideas were coordinated by the Information Policy Coordination Committee, whose role was to ensure that Government had some control over the public relations element of Northern Ireland during this time, not easy considering the Shankill Butchers were starting to operate in the small terraced streets of Belfast and the infamous Balcombe Street Gang were in the process of killing fifteen people on the streets of London.

Winning the Truce
The committee's main preoccupation was with ‘winning the truce’ against the IRA. The civil servants, supported by staff from the security forces were keen to undermine the IRA and divide the organization from its support base, as an integral part of the Government strategy towards Northern Ireland. Anger was directed towards local politicians by the committee, allied to dissatisfaction with local journalists. ‘It was unfortunate that Ulster interviewers were of poor quality, which led to NI representatives being uncritically interviewed.’

Awareness was also expressed as to the propaganda war taking place in the USA, with the need to place ‘a moderate presence in local (American) radio stations and TV. To counteract the ‘British Jackboot’ Irish propaganda at large at the moment’.

Saving The Grand Opera House
The saving of the Grand Opera House by the Arts Council is the subject of one extensive file opened to the public for the first time. The Opera House had been extensively damaged by bombing in 1974, and its owners, The Rank Organisation had sold the property to a business consortium, headed by a ‘local businessman.’ It was the consortium’s intention to demolish the building and create a block of luxury apartments on the site.

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, led by its then Director, Kenneth Jamison, saw therefore a pressing need to purchase the building in order to ensure a city centre presence for the arts, at a time when most other venues in the city had been victims of closure due to the Troubles. Intensive lobbying therefore took place with the Government, in the shape of head civil servant Kenneth Bloomfield having a sceptical air over the financial implications. Eventually the government did extend the funds, estimated at £4 million and the reconstruction of the ‘most impressive remaining Victorian theatre’ in the country was begun.

Counting the Cost of the Troubles
Clear from a file in PRONI released this year is the sheer cost and difficulty of continuing normal life in the Province during a time of civil conflict. The civil service who dominate the files in this year, with representational government being in abeyance, continually discussed the never ending battle to fix roads, light streets and clean the streets.

Ingenuity was not lost in the chaos though, and W Slinger, responsible for the Spruce up Campaign of 1972 - 75, reported that the Department of Industrial and forensic science had ‘after much experiment, created their own graffiti removal paint.’ Mr. Slinger reported that the cost of the campaign from 1972 - 75 was £4 million.

Saving the Shipyard
Clear also is the extent of the crisis facing industry, once the mainstay of Northern Ireland’s employment infrastructure. Papers relating to the Draft Shipbuilding Bill of 1975 saw Harland and Wolff being taken into public ownership. £81 million had been put into the yard from 1966 - 1975 and now all contracts were to be directly approved by the Secretary of State himself.

In a draft of his speech to the House of Commons, Merlyn Rees stressed the perceived importance of keeping the yard going, and its integral part in Northern Irish life. ‘In the future the yard will in a real sense be opened by NI. Those working in the shipyard will no longer be working for private shareholders or for themselves alone, but for Northern Ireland. It is their responsibility to ensure that the yard survives.’

Lease from Victor Coates to William Kerr of property in Swift Street, Ballymacarrett, Belfast, 1879 (PRONI Ref:   ENV/4/1/1/1/75/21)Local historians will be very interested in the opened file concerning Swift Street in East Belfast. These documents give a narrative to the development of this area of Ballymacarret from it's beginnings as a small adjunct to Belfast in 1767, into the industrial heartland of the nineteenth century, when the town land was one of the fastest developing urban areas in Europe. The documents include maps, deeds, wills and survey's that will allow historians to piece together the story of one small part of the city.

The opening of the 30 year files gives us a unique insight into our past. 1975 was a bleak year in our history, but the color and desire to keep life alive is evident from the files at PRONI.

Why not read the documents yourself? Files at PRONI can be viewed at any time. Simply travel to PRONI, fill in a reader's application form and request the files you wish. For more details visit the PRONI website or contact the office on +44 (0) 28 9025 5905.