Writing the No-Go Areas

By Robbie Turner –

The no-go areas were the barricaded self-governing urban districts, on both sides in the conflict, that sprung up in Belfast, Derry, and other towns during the years 1969 to 1972, of which so little has been written or indeed is known about.  And yet when we look a little closer these areas provide unique insights into the people’s history of the ‘Troubles’, the everyday motivations of the conflict, which has so often alluded scholars. The story of these no-go areas is above all the story of the people who lived in them, who built the barricades, and who were affected by them. Why did they build them? What motivated them? How did they effect daily life, the ordinary, the positively mundane? And how did they fit into (even influence) the main story of Northern Ireland? And if that isn’t enough: how do Northern Ireland’s no-go areas compare to similar self-governed districts around the world?    

There is a remarkable lack of literature about Northern Ireland’s no-go areas. And here lies a mystery, why such silence? After all, the residents of whole districts in some of the chief towns and cities of Northern Ireland, barricaded themselves in their own areas, expelled the state, and established their own sovereign rule. All attracting such little recognition. In most general histories of the ‘Troubles’ the no-go areas are ignored completely, those that do mention them tend to focus on their demise only, that is to say the British Army’s “Operation Motorman” which cleared the barricades on the 31 July 1972. A very small number of more specialised works mention them outside the context of Motorman, but these provide little to no detail and no real exploration of their nature. In fairness, some really excellent work has been done on Free Derry by people such as Niall O Dochartaigh and Adrian Kerr of the Museum of Free Derry.[1] But this concentrates exclusively on the nationalist areas (there has in fact been no equivalent study of loyalist no-go areas) and the Derry experience. What is more they focus almost entirely on conflict-related aspects of the barricades, rather than the internal governance or social elements of the no-go areas. 

There are of course some really good and interesting contemporary accounts, such as the chapter on Free Derry in the young Dublin journalist, Rosita Sweetman’s, book “On our Knees” Ireland 1972,but these are surprisingly thin on the ground. There are also some rich pickings to be had from the newspapers reports (particularly in the local press) but even these tend not to look at why and how the no-go areas where governed, concerning themselves only with the growing level of violence connected to the barricades. In the end the researcher is almost like an archaeologist, doing endless excavations, and finding a few – very few – artefacts, such as an arrowhead, a pot, a cup, and a sword, with which to piece the story of a society together. 

But regardless of how difficult it is to tell the story of the no-go areas matters. It matters for a variety of reasons, not least for the people who lived in them. The no-go areas raise many questions about the fears, aspirations, and in some cases the prejudices of the populations living within them, they can tell us about how these feelings and attitudes (fear of the other, and, amongst the Catholic community, the belief that the state and its agents were against them, trying to control them) reflected the very heart of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and why. The very existence of the no-go areas raises questions about how people saw themselves, and others, as well as why such attitudes exist and developed. But most importantly, the no-go areas can offer us hugely valuable insight into the relationship of people to the state, the governed to the government, and the question of political legitimacy. This of course is not unique to Northern Ireland but to people all around the world and so through studying the no-go areas of the ‘Troubles’ we can perhaps see something of this universal story, of how people relate to their governing systems, what they want or desire from governments, and how governments succeed or fail in establishing their legitimacy.    

The Northern Ireland barricaded areas were a reflection of fear, but they were also the product of a rejection of the state. They existed within the context of the failure of the state to rule through consent. Considering this, the no-go areas really require a global historic focus.  For looking at other similar situations of fraught community state relations, to examine the disjunct between people’s aspirations and the state’s interests, within different contexts and investigating issues of state legitimacy and alienation in different places, we can better understand the dynamics of the Northern Ireland no-go areas.  And there are many such examples: some were the product of other ethnic conflicts, such as the Turkish Cypriot enclaves 1964-1974, while others, including the Paris Commune of 1871, were motivated by class and ideology.  What they all have in common, however, is that for a variety of reasons and motivations, people saw their interests as best served in their own collective solidarity and self-governance, with varying results. 

It is this, (the collective political actions of a community, and their reasoning and motivation) that makes the Northern Ireland no-go areas a universal story, be it with a strong Ulster accent. And in the uncovering of the no-go areas, by interrogating the act of barricaded self-governance, we can glimpse the real nature of this divided society and the associated ideologies of unionism and nationalism. Though many will dispute the basic validity of the core values of nationalism and unionism, regarding them as flights from real politics, the no-go areas emphasised the more sociological and harder political element of the ideologies. A street level “really existing” nationalism and unionism, born of competing communal aspirations and interests, rather than abstract “romantic” notions of nationalism and unionism, was palpably manifest in the creation and operation of the no-go areas.                       

But perhaps the main reason why we need a better understanding of the no-go areas is that it allows us a unique opportunity to put the focus on people. The no-go areas came from the people who lived in them, they expressed their views, their fears, aspirations, and world views. As such the no-go areas were not only an expression of the political values and aspirations of the communities that established them, but visible demonstrations of the failure of the state to establish its legitimacy. Their study can, therefore, tell us something about nature of political legitimacy, the relationship of the citizen to the state, and possibly why a state can fail. The no-go areas were, though often underpinned by some quite traditional and conservative values, innovative and experiential. An example would be that of Free Derry, which in 1969 was governed by a Defence Committee, made up of civil rights activists, nationalist politicians, radical socialist, and republicans, and major decisions were made by residents mass voting. When in 1971 Free Derry was re-established, there was no Defence Committee, the residents worked on the memory of 1969, and things continued to function as they had the first time round, just with no overall governance. Though this was not considered satisfactory, and several attempts were made to form some sort of government body, with one about to be established just before Motorman, for almost a year Free Derry existed in a state of pure anarchy and worked just as well as in 1969.  

The study of the no-go areas raises big questions, reflecting not only the nature of Northern Ireland’s society, but also the nature of the state, legitimacy, the government and the governed anywhere in the world. Given all this I have to ask again, why so ignored? Writing the no-go areas is a work in progress.  

(Image: Free Derry Corner – geography.org.uk, Wiki Commons)

Robbie Turner was raised in Dublin, where he worked as an actor. He came rather late to academia, earning a BA in Politics and History from University College Dublin in 1998, and an MA in politics from the same university in 2003. He has also worked as a tutor in the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin from 2003-2014, before embarking on a successful PhD at the University of St Andrew’s. The subject of the PhD, the no-go areas in Northern Ireland 1969-72, Robbie intends writing a book about in the near future. 

[1]O’ Dochartaigh, Niall, From Civil Rights to Armalites, Derry and the Birth of the Irish Troubles, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK, 2005, Kerr, Adrian, Free Derry, Protest and Resistance, Guildhall Press, Derry, Northern Ireland, 2013    

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