Like many cities in Britain, Belfast suffered industrial decline in the 1960s. High unemployment rates were the norm for many of the housing estates in west Belfast.
“Official statistics in Ballymurphy had 37% of head of households unemployed.” – Ciarán de Baróid.
“I had been trying to get young apprentices brought into Mackies for a long, long time, because it was one of the biggest industrial projects in the city close to west Belfast. There were no apprenticeships offered to young Catholic boys.” – Seán Mac Goill.
Ballymurphy is situated between the Springfield Road and the Whiterock Road in west Belfast. “It was an area of 600+ houses, large numbers of children in a family, very high levels of unemployment and, peculiar to the rest of Belfast, an amount of young people up to the ages of 20; 30% of the population”, explains Seán.
In August 1969, when families from the Lower Falls were burnt out of their homes, they found refuge in temporary wooden huts built for them in Ballymurphy.
“Whenever the northern state exploded again in the summer of 1969, you had hundreds of catholic families who had been burnt out of streets like Dover Street, Percy Street, Norfolk Street, Conway Street, Bombay Street, and they ended up coming to Ballymurphy on the Whiterock Road.” – Liam Stone.
Residents were realising changes had to be made if their community was going to survive and grow.
“Once the Troubles broke out it had a remarkable effect on the people in the area and the community. Suddenly there was a job to do. There was an influx of refugees and it had a tremendous effect on changing that community from being a transit camp to within a very short period of time there was a waiting list to get into Ballymurphy” explains Ciarán, “It was systematic of what was happening in Nationalist areas, particularly where there was a huge mass movement of people. People decided they were going to take things into their own hands, build up support networks for their communities from the inside.”
Frank Cahill pursued ways of empowering the community through economic development. One of the earliest examples of this was the fundraising to support the building of the Ballymurphy Community Centre.
“People like Frank Cahill and Des Wilson realised what was happening in the area. People were afraid to go out of the area and also there wasn’t anything in the area”. Maura Brown.
There was a central belief that people had to create their own employment.
“In August 1971, the British government introduced Internment without trial. Hundreds of men, Catholics, republicans and nationalists, were all thrown into Long Kesh Internment Camp. A lot of the discussions that took place were about what type of economic system we want, a very big emphasis on the co-operative approach.” – Liam Stone.
“People thought everything was possible, there was a movement towards what people thought would be an independent Ireland, there was an armed struggle going on, there was a social struggle going on” Ciarán de Baróid.
“The economic factors were going to tie in with the political factors, at one level, but the co-ops happening at the other and people beginning to believe in themselves.” – Jim McCorry.
“The idea, itself, was simply a social movement concept. The idea of the workers controlling it. A lot of the people involved were socialists. They were socialists in the belief that they weren’t going to exploit anybody. They thought, at that time, the best way forward was to try and develop a series of interconnected co-operatives.” – Liam Stone.
Ballymurphy Enterprises was an attempt to build a firm economic base, owned and controlled by the people of the area. The original site was a house, training people from the area in sewing and knitting to make clothes. Eventually a new building was acquired and residents decided to build a factory.
“They were well ahead of their time. Nowadays, they would have got massive support, but at the time there was no support of any significance.” – Ciarán de Baróid,
Over time, the co-operative movement grew. A building company was set up. A petrol station was built. “When we did the garage and filling station we inserted another shop unit to let, so we set up Whiterock Pictures which was a separate company”, says Seán.
The Troubles were never far away. Seán remembers one particular incident that almost cost him his life. “We had young people travelling around Turf Lodge one evening collecting funds around doors. Seamus Napier and Seamus Mac Sheain and I were at a meeting together. It was getting dark and we decided we would collect these young people. We just drove into the estate and reversed the car and parked and suddenly firing and shooting happened. Soldiers were coming down the street; they fanned out shooting from the hip. My car was parked. Seamus dived out of the driver’s side, jumped over a hedge and a woman dragged him in through the door. I lay on the top two seats and quietly closed the door behind me. At first I thought I’d been shot because bullets had gone through the car, through the tax disk and out the front window. There were always risks and hazards”
One day there was an attack by Loyalists on the garage and petrol station and a teenager was killed. Seamus Mac Sheain was seriously wounded. “Seamus ran down the road and they followed him and they shot him. He fell on the road and they shot him again. Seamus’ shooting was a shock to me.”
The movement to build co-operatives was not to last. The British Army took over the Whiterock Industrial Estate. “We had major plans to create thousands of jobs in the Whiterock Industrial Estate but the British Army deemed that they needed it for military purposes and took it over”.
One by one the businesses that had been created began to crumble. Ballymurphy Enterprises was one of the first to go.
“The knitwear factory, Ballymurphy Enterprises, failed because they couldn’t compete with the cheap imports.” – Ciarán de Baróid. “What we did, we did for the right reasons. We were successful up to a point. In the overall picture, I think we contributed to a feeling of hope, a feeling of confidence, that people could do what they needed to do.”
“We discovered that we could work together.” Seán Mac Goill.
“I think the legacy is the belief that people can effect change themselves, that they are the agents of change, that we just don’t sit here wondering, what the elected representatives are going to decide on our behalf.” Liam Stone