From 'Victor Sloan: Selected Works 1980-2000'

Craigavon: Gerry Burns

Craigavon was created out of controversy, both in terms of the angry questioning of its necessity and the ever angrier questioning of its geographical location. Even its choice of name, that of Northern Ireland’s first Unionist Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, was hardly designed to ensure support from all parts of the political spectrum. But back in the ‘swinging sixties’ such matters were of little consequence to the Unionist elite who governed Northern Ireland. None of these controversies, however, helped the area to surmount the social and economics difficulties of the seventies and eighties, and it is only today, at the start of the 21st century, that the area is finally beginning to show definite signs of fulfilling its potential as a successful growth centre and an area of expanding economic activity. But at what cost?

Over the years since its conception Craigavon has been criticised as unnecessary, ill-chosen and as deflecting scarce resources from other much needy areas, such as Derry/Londonderry. These arguments fell on deaf ears, although they never really went away, and indeed can still be heard today. In 1964, however, Professor Wilson, in his Report to the government argued that the creation of a sizable new town outside Belfast would ‘greatly add to Northern Ireland’s capacity to attract industry’. His argument was that ‘the towns of Lurgan and Portadown together constituted the second largest urban centre outside Belfast and it was only to be expected that both towns would continue to grow.’ Here then was to be the location of Northern Ireland’s new city. The population of the Lurgan/Portadown area was some 55,000 in 1961. The target figure for the new city which would link the two existing towns was estimated as being 100,000 by 1981. By the early seventies the population figures for both towns had hardly risen and the planners were wrestling with all the social problems of an area in desperate need for an identity and a sense of direction.

The new city was, like its counter-parts throughout the United Kingdom, the culmination of a peculiarly British planning tradition. Its philosophy was rooted in anti-urbanism, the belief in the superior morality of the countryside and its pattern of life. It had it origins in the industrial revolutions and the growth of vast urban slums in Victorian times. As a reaction to all of this the concept of the ‘garden city’ was developed. Craigavon was very much a part of this tradition. It was to be an area of parks and open spaces, with the countryside never more than half a mile from any doorstep, designed for the cars that virtually every resident was expected to own. For the pedestrian in Craigavon today the legacy of this thinking remains. True, there are walkways and bridges, but it is not, nor is it is ever likely to be an easy place to get about in if you are on foot. And if you ad in a couple of small children, perhaps a child’s buggy, then getting about on foot can be problematic indeed.

The importance of road – planning in the Craigavon area was appreciated from an early stage and the new city does possess good road links to Belfast and Larne. Looking southwards, however, the links to Newry and beyond the border to Dublin are much less well developed. It would be easy to be cynical and to argue that this was only to be expected in a project which had its roots set firmly in the soil of political unionism. But in truth, who in the sixties could reasonable have been expected to foresee the enormous economic development taking place at the present time in the Republic of Ireland?

It also has to be said that Craigavon’s problems largely mirrored those of Northern Ireland as a whole. Firstly, as political and sectarian violence escalated throughout the seventies and eighties the flow of new industrial investment to Northern Ireland was inevitably much reduced. In better times Craigavon could reasonably have expected to have attracted a part of this flow. The promise of better times ahead for the new city were founded almost entirely on the decision of the multi-national rubber company, Goodyear, to open a plant there. The company, however, having been induced to set up a plant in the area by huge government grants, pulled out in 1983. As the single local employer the effect on the area was devastating. Multi-national companies survive because of their ability to read the economic signs. Despite the abrupt departure of Goodyear the Craigavon planners continued to argue that an economic upturn was just around the corner.

Secondly, the housing needs in Northern Ireland changed dramatically in a manner that was not foreseen in 1964 when Professor Wilson was presenting his report. Instead of a rapidly increasing population Northern Ireland’s total population slowed to a trickle. Higher emigration as people sought ‘normal lives’ far away from the ‘troubles’, coupled with lower birth rates ensured that the optimistic projections of the planners fell far short of their mark. Para-militarism and the pill combined to further undermine the possibility of growth and prosperity in the new city. It could be argued that the whole concept of Craigavon as a new city had been shown to have failed by the mid – eighties, but since it was in many ways the flagship of the Unionist parties policy of economic prosperity, it could never be allowed to flounder. So money continued to pour into the area.

Over recent years the majority of immigrants to Northern Ireland, and to Craigavon, have tended to come from the rural area of Hong Kong, the New Territories. Unlike the affluent island of Hong Kong this area has remained underdeveloped economically, socially and educationally. Subjected to little Western influence the people from the New Territories have always held strong traditional Chinese attitudes. In many cases they had not acquired a command of English as a second language before arriving in places like Northern Ireland. Not surprisingly they found it difficult adjusting to their new surroundings. They did however, adapt much more successfully than many of the ethnic Chinese who came to Craigavon from Vietnam during the late 1970s and early 1980s. These became known as ‘the boat people’ because of their often tragic attempts to flee from Vietnam following the departure of the Americans.

Difficulty with the English language certainly made it much more difficult for the immigrants to integrate successfully into society in Craigavon. The Runnymeade Trust Report, The Chinese Community in Britain, points to this factor as being at the root of most of the problems experienced by Chinese immigrants to Britain. Underachievement at school, failure to obtain adequate employment, racial discrimination and racial harassment, all of these things tend to be mooted in language difficulties.

Many efforts were made to ensure that immigrants were made to feel welcome. Going back to my own experiences, I attended a number of meetings with the Vietnamese community in Craigavon in an effort to ensure ease of access to library and information facilities. The fact that these largely came to nought may say as much about our inability to communicate effectively, as about the failure of the Vietnamese community to take advantage of what was being offered. Other people in the local Public Services had similar experiences. The bottom line, however, was that the immigrants to Craigavon felt increasingly vulnerable and isolated. Over thirty years later we have to acknowledge the continuing existence of a prevailing culturally racist attitude in Northern Ireland, an attitude that insists “there is no racism here!”

Evidence would suggest otherwise. Craigavon is no worse than anywhere in Northern Ireland, but it is certainly no better. Depressingly, accordingly to a 1997 study by the University of Ulster Ethnic Minorities in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of people interviewed from the Chinese community thought that racism and racial violence would increase as paramilitary violence decreased.

I myself lived in Craigavon, in the Rathmore estate, for a time after I got married. The houses were reputed to have been of a Swedish design. On opening the front you were faced with a set of stairs which took you up to the living room. There were no open fireplaces but were heated by electricity, which was considered by many of the people who lived in the estates be expensive. They had flat roofs. Generally the design of the houses was not popular. It is an interesting observation that the first houses in Craigavon to be vandalised were always those which did not follow traditional designs. Vandalism almost became a way of life in parts of the Rathmore estate, and indeed in many of the other housing estates in Craigavon. Grants were paid to encourage people to move to the new city from other parts of Northern Ireland. Many of those who came in this way took the money and went back to their original points of departure, for a variety of reasons. Some found the open spaces lonely and returned to the familiar snugness of city homes. Others no doubt came simply for the money, with no intention of staying. The result was that you quickly had an unsettled population in the area. People were coming and going all the time. Houses which were vacated were quickly vandalised, if they hadn’t already been stripped of their facilities by those who were leaving. In Rathmore, to quote but one example, new houses were vandalised, repaired, vandalised, and repaired over and over again. Eventually the planners conceded defeat and the Rathmore estate fell victim to the bulldozers.

On its own it was a hugely expensive waste of public money, although a relatively small cost in terms of the overall expenditure on Craigavon as a whole over the years. But it need not have happened. Rathmore could have a success story if the planners had shown the slightest interest in talking or listening to the local residents. True they did go through the motions. I remember attending a number of their meetings where multicoloured plans and charts were displayed and sensible suggestions about the provision of much needed amenities were dismissed out of hand. ‘We need to establish the communities first,’ we were told, ‘then we will consult about what facilities are needed, and finally we will establish these.’ It sounded logical, I suppose to the planners, but while we were waiting for all this to happen people deprived of any kind of recreational outlet were running riot through the increasing numbers of empty houses in places like Rathmore. For all the talk of indeterminacy, planners, architects and developers had still to determine!

Craigavon with its ‘balancing lakes’ and its miles of trees and shrub planting can be an attractive place, but the visitor seeking a self-contained aesthetic experience from this ‘new city’ is likely to be disappointed. There are few buildings which could be described as being examples of especially satisfying modern architecture. The biggest criticism of the area, however, is that it completely lacks a city centre of any kind. The nearest thing to a centre would be the Rushmere shopping centre which is like any other ‘out-of-town’ shopping mail, containing as it does some of the commercial big-hitters such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s. It has no more claim to be a town centre, however, than the Sprucefield complex, which lies a few miles away up the motorway, has to be the centre of Lisburn.

In all probability Craigavon is here to stay. In the changing political climate of Northern Ireland its name may well come under renewed scrutiny at some stage and may be eventually be changed to something less-politically charged. For most people, however, Craigavon is the built-up area between Lurgan and Portadown, and as far as the local communities are concerned the two towns remain as separate as ever, with their own unique identities. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. In that respect the plan to forge a new city by the conjunction of two historic towns has failed. In most people’s minds had the concept been based on a single unit , such as the ‘Maiden City’, then the end results, politically, economically, socially, might have indeed been dramatic. But in the narrow, blinkered, political conditions of the sixties and seventies this could never have happened. Craigavon was first and foremost a political concept. In many ways its successes and failures mirror those of Northern Ireland itself.


Northern Ireland, Ministry of Health & Local Government: First Report on the Proposed New City. 1978.

Craigavon New Industries Council: Craigavon Guide to Manufacturing Companies & Services. 1981.

Craigavon in the 80s. 1982.

C.E. Brett: Craigavon. 1973.

J. McQuoid: Verdict on Vandalism: Young People’s Perceptions of Vandalism in Brownlow, Craigavon. 1989.

Craigavon Development Commission: Craigavon New City. 1972.

Craigavon Development Commission, Brownlow. Craigavon: The New Community. 1974.

Ulster Architectural heritage Society, Craigavon. Craigavon: List of Historical Buildings.

Northern Ireland, Ministry of Development: Inquiry into the Acquisition of Land, Craigavon, 1966.

F.J. St. Leger: Report on a Survey of Craigavon New Town, 1973.

Northern Ireland Housing Executive: District Housing Plan 1990-91, Craigavon. 1990.

G. Irwin & S. Dunn: Ethnics Minorities in Northern Ireland. University of Ulster. 1997.

M. Poole & P. Doherty: Ethnic Residential Segregation in Northern Ireland. University of Ulster. 1996.

Divided Society (Ethnic Minorities & Racism in Northern Ireland) 1998.

D. Mann - Kier. Out of the Shadows: an Action Research Report into Families, Racism & Exclusion in Northern Ireland. 1997.

The assistance of the staff in the Irish and Local Studies Department at the Southern Education and Library Headquarter in Armagh is gratefully acknowledged.

Gerry Burns is a historian and writer based in Co. Armagh