20 sobering snapshots of Belfast during the Troubles

The true picture of Ulster’s divided city.

17 November 2016

By Paul O’Callaghan

Belfast - No Way Out (1970)

In this powerful 1970 TV documentary, the filmmakers look beyond the obvious negative consequences of religious tensions and the 1969 riots to explore the underreported issues of poverty and appalling housing conditions in Belfast.

1. Children play in the streets of Belfast, a divided city in the aftermath of intense sectarian rioting in 1969.

2. A distressed resident says “they’re going out and fighting now for a lot of things that I think are a lot of nonsense”. She suggests it would be better “if everybody got together and fought against the price of food going up, the price of the new houses getting built that we can’t afford”.

3. Our narrator poses a provocative question: “how much of Northern Ireland’s troubles today are caused by religious hatred, and how much by the squalor and deprivation which so many of Ulster’s citizens, both Catholic and Protestant, live in?”

4. At this time, many of Belfast’s half a million inhabitants live in houses with no inside toilet, no bath and no hot water.

5. A labourer in Belfast earns, on average, £4 a week less than his English counterpart, although the cost of living is just as high.

6. Tommy Madden, pictured here, found he was better off cleaning streets than performing a semi-skilled job in a mill.

7. Sam Johnson is one of thousands in the city looking for work of any description.

8. At this time, Belfast has a higher rate of unemployment than any other major city in Britain.

9. Like 11,000 others, Sam must pay a weekly visit to the Belfast labour exchange.

10. Mr McMillan, who has chronic bronchitis and has been unemployed for the best part of nine years, pays a morning visit to his unheated outdoor bathroom.

11. His family lives below the poverty line. During this time, Mrs McMillan has had a breakdown, and attempted suicide twice.

12. But the family has weathered the storm together, and day-to-day life has its lighter moments.

13. James Henry and his wife scrape by an existence on a pension of £8 per week.

14. The money he collects each Thursday usually lasts until Monday, at which point James pawns his beloved radio to buy food.

15. He always buys back the radio as soon as he can afford, losing money each time.

16. Mrs Ditty lives with her 10 children in a house that’s literally falling down.

17. Thanks to a bizarre legal loophole owing to the death of her landlord, she finds herself ineligible for council housing, despite the gaping hole in her kitchen roof, and myriad other issues that render her home unfit for habitation.

18. Tragically, her youngest son was killed by a milk van while playing in the street. But as she explains, “all the youngsters play in the street – there’s nowhere else to play”.

19. A group of women playfully picket their rent collector. Many people have been moved to newer housing estates, but are now faced with rents that they simply can’t afford.

20. Our narrator concludes that if the Belfast Corporation tries to evict tenants for refusing to pay increased rents, it might well be confronted by Catholics and Protestants on the same side of a barricade.

The film and stills on this page are taken from Britain on Film, a digital archive of UK places that mean the world to you. 10,000 film and TV titles from 1895 to now will be digitised and can be watched for free on BFI Player.

Britain on Film is funded by The National Lottery and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.


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