Will Northern Ireland’s ‘Peace Walls’ Ever Come Down?

Dennis Gray stands in front of his house in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, and talks about the large peace wall that he wants removed. (Cain Burdeau photo/Courthouse News)

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (CN) — At a time when the world is talking about erecting new walls, Northern Ireland is pondering how it will ever be able to take down the miles of security barriers, walls and fences that tower over neighborhoods and in many places still serve the function of keeping the peace between Catholics and Protestants long after the Troubles ended.

There are approximately 100 such barriers, known as “peace walls,” found across Northern Ireland in places where Catholics and Protestants live in close proximity — so-called “interface areas.”

These barriers are both a poignant reminder of the conflict and an integral part of peoples’ lives and sense of safety. Every day, passageways and gates across them are closed at night and reopened in the morning with the aim of deterring nighttime attacks, vandalism and other forms of aggression.

“The fact is that they are still up because people feel that they serve a purpose; people locally feel they are needed to protect them from physical attack,” said David Mitchell, a professor at Trinity College Dublin’s school of Conflict, Resolution and Reconciliation in Belfast, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News.

“There is this kind of conundrum in that they function to protect people but also have the effect of separating people.”

In Londonderry, the 250 residents of the Fountain area, the last Protestant neighborhood left on the west bank of the Foyle River, in the bustling city center, are surrounded by walls and tall security fences.

“We’ve had our windows smashed, we’ve had petrol bombs and paint bombs,” said Kitty Jackson, a 42-year-old home-care worker who lives with her family next to the barrier that runs along Bishop Street.

These objects are launched over the fence by youths, most of whom come from the Bogside, an adjacent Catholic and pro-Irish neighborhood. She said the attacks typically occur in the summer when Catholic youths lash out against Protestant parades.

A mild, low-intensity, sectarian conflict is still going on here 21 years after the Troubles were finally quelled with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The peace treaty went a long way toward ending the decades-long conflict that killed about 3,600 civilians, nationalist and loyalist paramilitaries and British soldiers and police officers.

Still, the treaty could not quell deep animosities between the two communities, and acts of vandalism, violence and intimidation are commonplace.

Jackson said residents of the Fountain would like to see the high fence go even higher, as thrown objects still make it over. As further precaution, her house has thick glass on its windows and an additional fence next to her home and car park.

American professor, Matthew Denvir from Virginia Beach, Virginia, writes his name on a peace wall in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, that divides Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. (Cain Burdeau photo/Courthouse news)

“It’s young boys coming up from the Bog,” she said, short for the Bogside. “The slightest wee thing at all, and they’re up,” she said, shaking her head. “They think they are reliving the Troubles, these young people who never lived it themselves.”

Her family is a target also because her husband is a community leader in the Fountain and runs a military museum inside a tower along the peace wall on Bishop Street.

“They say things like: ‘Orange bastards, we want to shoot you, we want to burn you out.’ But that’s been going on from the Troubles, so that goes over our heads,” she said.

“People would come and say to us: ‘Why don’t you move?’ Why should I move? It’s my home,” she said. “You have 90-year-olds born and raised here.”

The first peace walls, or “peace lines,” were built by residents during intense rioting in 1969 at the outset of the Troubles. The rioting was so bad that thousands of Northern Irish families on both sides fled their homes and relocated behind the then-nascent peace walls and in other areas deemed safe.

“This is what makes it so hard to bring them down,” said Mick Fealty, the editor of Slugger O’Toole, an online news site about Northern Ireland and its politics. “Communities themselves put them up.”

Over time, these first rudimentary barriers were added onto and the walls became part of the British government’s strategy to contain sectarian violence. In many places, the British also placed watchtowers and security cameras along the walls.

Today, politicians talk about tearing down the walls, but they’ve taken few steps to do so. The Northern Irish government has a goal of removing them by 2023, but that seems highly unlikely to occur.

“Some people are looking to knock them down, clearly,” Jackson said, shaking her head and crossing her arms. “It just definitely wouldn’t work.”

Not everyone feels this way.

In Belfast, Northern Ireland’s largest city, a massive wall runs between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in West Belfast that saw some of the worst violence during the Troubles.

Along this wall, many people are in favor of tearing it down.

“I think they’re stupid. People from the other side, we’re friendly with,” said Darren Smith, a 28-year-old bank teller who lives in a cluster of homes in the predominantly Protestant Shankill neighborhood a stone’s throw away from the wall.

A road that connects the two sides of the wall is closed at night, cutting off traffic, and reopened in the morning. To get around the wall means going quite a long distance.

“We’ve got to move on,” Smith said of the Troubles and lingering animosities. “A lot of people live in the past in Belfast. I think the Troubles have all passed.”

Not far away, a neighbor, 70-year-old Dennis Gray, was of a similar mind. The retired furniture deliveryman sat in front of his home drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette. For him, the vista outside his front door is dominated by the wall.

“It’s a nuisance,” he said.

“That wall has been there since the Troubles. First it was a small wall, and gradually it got bigger and bigger.”

This peace wall protects the Fountain, the last Protestant neighborhood on the west bank of the Foyle River in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The residents of the Fountain want the security fence to go even higher. (Cain Burdeau photo /Courthouse News)

For Gray, it’s time to take it down. “I’d rather it be open so we can all look at each other,” he said. “I’d love to see what’s on the other side of the wall.”

But he doesn’t think that day is coming anytime soon. “Nobody talks about it now,” he said. He added that it has even become a tourist attraction with tour guides bringing visitors to sign their names on the wall.

He frowned and cast his eyes over to the hulking barrier. A Catholic church spire was visible over the wall.

“The Berlin Wall came down,” he said, taking a sip of coffee. “My God, I don’t know when this one will come down.”

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.

People live under the shadow of a peace wall in West Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Cain Burdeau photo/Courthouse News)

“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.)

Youths walk by a large peace wall in West Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Cain Burdeau photo/Courthouse News)
%d bloggers like this: