In 1971, the UK government closed 100 Irish border crossings and cratered them with explosives

The motorway from Belfast to Dublin earlier this month. Image: Getty.

William Gladstone is said to have remarked that, whenever a solution to the ‘Irish Question’ was found, the Irish secretly changed the question. Historian Piers Brendon provided an equally droll rebuttal: “The trouble was that the Irish question remained the same – how to get rid of the Union?”

A generation after Gladstone’s death, the Anglo-Irish Treaty cemented the partition of Ireland following the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. The sectarian underpinning of partition ensured towns and villages were cut off from hinterlands, farms were split, and local businesses suffered.

This land border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK extends over 300 miles. Crossing points range from motorways and dual carriageways to secondary roads and dirt tracks, many known only to locals. As the ‘Troubles’ escalated from 1970 onwards, IRA arms and explosives sourced in the Republic or smuggled there from abroad were often transported over the border into Northern Ireland. In 1971, Ulster Unionist MP William Stratton Mills referred to this as a “gelignite trail across the border”, drawing parallels with the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

That August, the Stormont government’s decision to introduce internment without trial, directed solely at the nationalist population, led to a sharp increase in violence. In response, the government announced that all “unapproved” border crossings were to be cratered and made impassable. Ostensibly, this initiative – along with increased military security on the “approved” roads – would reduce the violence by starving Northern IRA units of supplies. Some suspected, however, that hardline members of the Ulster Unionist Party, such as John Taylor (now Baron Kilclooney), were using the opportunity to hermetically seal their state off from the Republic once and for all. The decision to close “unapproved” border roads was taken unilaterally: the government of the Irish Republic were not consulted.

Both Official and Provisional wings of the IRA issued warnings to the British Army about cratering operations. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association also warned of its alienating effect on locals, pointing out that

“anybody determined to take arms or explosives into the North would not be deterred by holes in the road. The only people to suffer would be members of the local community, farmers, housewives and schoolchildren who had to make long detours as they went about their daily business.  The total effect iss to bring about the resentment of the army.”

The Irish-American journalist, P. Michael O’Sullivan, witnessed a full-scale border riot in County Tyrone, between locals and British soldiers during a cratering operation in late 1971. This was not atypical. Republican militants, many of whom were part of these border communities, were quick to see the strategic advantage in targeting British Army cratering operations. Following an Official IRA gun attack on a British Army squad engaged in cratering operations, that organisation released a statement referring to cratering as

“an act calculated to disrupt the lives of many people who depend upon the roads for their day-to-day travel… We wish to thank all the people of the area for the support they gave to our units and for their prompt action in filling the road. We pledge ourselves to defend their rights whenever similar acts of aggression are carried out by the British Army under instructions from Faulkner’s bully boys like John Taylor.”

The following year, the Official IRA unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Taylor, grievously wounding him in a shooting. The organisation’s statement following the attack noted: “Mr Taylor was the main advocate of the policy of cratering Border roads. This policy was designed to heighten tension along the Border.”

Numerous newspaper reports from Northern Ireland in the last quarter of 1971 report locals refilling roads after British Army operations. After just a few weeks of the operation, the cost for supplies – explosives, vehicles – was estimated at £10,000 in the currency of the time.

By the end of the year, a joke was circulating among political circles in Belfast and London regarding the road cratering strategy: Ulster Unionists wanted all the cratered roads on the border to be marked as holes on a map. The map was then to be presented by British officers to Prime Minister Edward Heath with the instructions to tear along the dotted line.

When the British Army sought to blockade roads with anti-tank traps instead of cratering, locals simply used construction machinery to remove the “spikes” as soon as the army left the scene. Sometimes, they did not even wait that long.


With time, the value of this tactic towards reducing violence was bound to be questioned – particularly as Provisional IRA attacks on British Army border operations were becoming increasingly sophisticated and commonplace. On one occasion in December 1971, soldiers came under sustained rifle and machinegun fire from the border, just 150 yards away.

Although the troops succeeded in cratering the road, this was their third time having to do so. On both previous occasions, locals refilled the road as soon as the soldiers had left. A newspaper report of the incident noted that “local residents were last night making plans to fill them again.”

The following month, a British soldier was killed by concealed mines during a cratering operation. Several days earlier, a British Army helicopter was reported to have fired on an IRA unit attempting an ambush of a cratering party. Gunfire from the helicopter was indiscriminate and struck houses on the southern side of the border, causing a diplomatic event.

In January 1972, over 1,000 rounds were fired in an exchange between the British Army and Provisional IRA units on the border. Following the encounter, a claymore-type bomb was found and defused. The command wire from the bomb ran over the border into the South.

The same day, John Taylor claimed that cratering led to “a considerable decline” in the number of hit-and-run attacks along the border. Taylor also acknowledged that nearly half of the 140 roads that were made impassable had been filled in again by locals.

Three days later, the Parachute Regiment indiscriminately fired into a Civil Rights demonstration in the city of Derry, killing thirteen civilians; another man later died of his wounds. Any remaining bonds of support for or tolerance towards the British Army within the nationalist community had been irrevocably broken. The conflict had entered its bloodiest year where, at its height, the Provisional IRA were conducting attacks across the border daily.

Earlier this year, a parliamentary committee reported on the possible outcomes for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic as part of the Brexit strategy:

“33,000 members of the Armed Forces were deployed in Northern Ireland. If you talk to veterans, I do not think you will find a single officer who thought the border was sealed for one hour during that period. All the evidence is that it was not.”

George Hamilton, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, believes that any physical infrastructure along the border would become the subject of “unhelpful attention” from militant Irish republicans. He has emphatically ruled out any border situation which would make his officers into “sitting ducks”.

Any proposal to address the border issue – the new “Irish question” – must be mindful of past and future; potential support for militant Irish republicans today and the inability to police the border with thousands of troops during the three decade-long ‘Troubles’.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.