Joe O'Donnell, the strategic director of the Belfast Interface Project, an organization working to bring down the walls, criticized the government for its lack of a plan on how to get people together and agree to take down the walls.
“What we need, what the government needs to do, what the society here demands, is a plan for the future about how we intend to remove those physical barriers that divide and segregate our communities,” O'Donnell said. “There is no comprehensive plan, there is no champion to lead the regeneration.”
Removing the walls also means dealing with deep social problems found in the very neighborhoods where the walls are: Many neighborhoods divided by walls are also where unemployment, poverty and allegiance to paramilitary ideologies are rife. Northern Ireland is the United Kingdom's poorest region, and these are among the poorest places in Northern Ireland.
“The areas that are poorest are also the ones that are most divided and the ones that suffered the most during the conflict,” Mitchell, the Trinity College Dublin professor, said.
“This is the common criticism of the peace process: It was quite good at stopping the violence, but it didn't do anything about poverty,” he continued. “It brought economic developments, but it didn't do so much for the poorer areas.”
He said Belfast has rebranded itself as a city of peace and even boasts now about being a hip movie city since the wildly popular television show “Game of Thrones” chose Belfast for production.
“But this is far removed from these poorer neighborhoods,” he said. “It's the working class areas where you see the legacy of the conflict continuing.”
Mitchell said Northern Ireland and its institutions have done a poor job of tackling the core problems and the cultural divides.
“People talk about the invisible peace walls,” he said, referring to how Catholics and Protestants often live in parallel worlds. Only a small percentage of Catholics, for instance, go to state schools, which they view as Protestant schools. Catholics and Protestant children play different sports and seldom play together.
“Even if the walls were to come down, the sectarian system would remain,” Mitchell said. “If the walls came down, it would be a huge symbolic development and would mean that the communities would have more desire to mix.”
Slowly, communities are being brought together.
One project to do this through youth sports is headed up by Trevor Ringland, a former Irish rugby star and former top member of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, a section of the Conservative Party.
Every summer, about 200 children drawn from Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods divided by walls are brought together to play sports.
“We have kids from North, South, East and West Belfast,” Ringland said. “We have kids from either side of the wall playing together. … It takes two minutes for those kids to be playing together.
“It's more than playing together, it's community relations,” Ringland said. “We focus on the common ground that is between them. We're a good example of what the future can be like.”
His group, which is part of the PeacePlayers International project, also works with children throughout the year to help them develop leadership skills while also playing basketball.
“Our ambition is to put ourselves out of business,” he said.
“So, when it comes to peace walls, we are bringing down the walls that are in people's minds. So, eventually, the physical walls will be able to come down once the people are comfortable, feel secure.”
But it looks like it will take a long time before these walls come down. There's simply little appetite among Northern Ireland's fractious, and divided, political parties to take the initiative, experts said.
“They [politicians] pay lip service to bringing them down,” Fealty, the editor of Slugger O'Toole, said. “There is a lack of political will to build the cross-community relations that you need.”
Fealty said the problem is that Northern Ireland's democratic political system, which he said really began only with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, is broken.
Since January 2017, Northern Ireland's democratic chamber of representatives, the National Assembly, has been shut down as the country's two major parties, the pro-Irish Sinn Féin and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, have been unable to work together. The Good Friday Agreement created a power-sharing government between Catholics and Protestants.
The delicate issue of the peace walls highlights the political paralysis in Northern Ireland.
“Frankly speaking, Sinn Féin represent people on one side of the wall and the DUP are their polar opposites,” Fealty said.
“You cannot fix problems on one side (of the wall) and not fix them on the other side,” he said. “You have to fix all of the problems. Instead of fixing everybody's problems, they've fixed no one's problems. They have to take a broader approach to dealing with social exclusion.”
There's a role for the governments of Britain, Ireland and the European Union too, experts said.
Fealty said Northern Ireland, for example, is constrained in dealing with its problems because the country is largely legally forbidden to levy its own taxes. This has been worsened in recent years after the British government undertook a program to cut public expenditures in a bid to rein in overspending. He said this has left Northern Ireland with few resources to tackle its social problems.
“You are trying to build a democracy with a budget that is being cut,” Fealty said. “There is a real case for London and Dublin to take a much closer interest.”
He expressed disappointment. “There is no overarching political strategy. It's a coping strategy.”
Ringland, the former rugby star and lawyer, said: “The politics are more polarized and the people are less polarized. The people are ahead of the politicians.”
The walls also hinder economic recovery in the areas that need it the most, experts said. The walls box them in and leave large tracts near the walls undeveloped, empty strips.
“They have hindered cross-community development,” Fealty said.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, only a few barriers have been removed through the consent of people living on both sides. In fact, more barriers have been built since the treaty was signed.
“When we had a government, the government was serious about taking down the peace walls,” Mitchell said. “Without having a government, there is no impetus, no direction in these targets.”
“It is extraordinary that people are still living behind walls,” he said, “and it's very difficult for a city to thrive when there are walls dividing it.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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