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Belfast’s walls are physical reminders of an imperfect peace

Divisions run deeper than the walls are high. Peter Morrison/AP

Northern Ireland’s transition from intractable division to peaceful co-existence has been remarkable. In a conflict that has claimed the lives of 3,529 people, any attempt at building an enduring peace settlement is rightly heralded as significant.

But Northern Ireland, and Belfast particularly, is scarred by a 40 year legacy of violence. The city’s deep cultural and political divisions between Catholic and Protestant communities are reinforced by a network of oxymoronically named “peace walls” – physical barriers erected to “keep the peace”. Proposed by the British Army in 1969 as a temporary solution to keep warring factions apart, they have become an expanding network of around 100 semi-permanent barriers more than 34km long and reaching, at their highest point, 7.5m tall.

Often referred to as “interfaces”, these barriers range from solid concrete walls to corrugated or chain-link metal fence, erected where sporadic inter-community violence remains. Earlier research from Shirlow and Murtagh in 2006 revealed that these peace walls tend also to appear in areas of higher socio-economic deprivation. This adds a further dimension to the legacy of the Troubles that highlights the link between community conflict and deeply embedded inequality.

Festering divisions

These peace walls are closely linked to issues of territory and identity by helping to define boundaries along sectarian lines. The physical segregation maintained by the walls creates an environment in which daily life involves interactions solely with members of one’s own community, further entrenching community divisions. Children and young people growing up in this “new” Northern Ireland experience not the sectarian violence of the Troubles, but comfortable separation supported by physical barriers.

A remarkable peace, then, but at what cost? Community organisations and NGOs have sought to address these issues of de facto segregation and division. Some focus on violence and security at the flashpoints. Others organise events to strengthen cross-community contact “across the lines”. To some extent, their success is limited. Growing up in segregated communities breeds suspicion meaning that, for many children growing up in Northern Ireland’s divided communities, their understanding of each other is derived from past narratives from parents or elders. Without removing the peace walls, the situation is unlikely to improve. As it is, this sort of interaction is a minimum required to alleviate potentially explosive suspicion and distrust.

Many want the walls pulled down, but those living nearest still feel protected. Paul Faith/PA

Taking advantage of this rather unsatisfactory outcome, a growing tourism industry has blossomed that offers overseas visitors the chance to see the legacy of the conflict through a tour of Belfast’s peace walls. This seems as good a signal as any that the time has come to remove these barriers, but making it happen has proven complicated.

Welfare and trust must come first

In January 2012 the International Fund for Ireland launched a £2m million initiative to bring down the walls and promote cross-community contact and shared community space. Recent research conducted by the University of Ulster found that, some 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, 76% of the public wanted to see the walls come down.

Professor William JV Neil referred to Belfast’s “twin-speed transition”, where despite the segregation and entrenched division embodied by the peace walls, the absence of daily violence has allowed the city to break from its former routine and move toward a typical consumerist culture as found in other European capitals. But far fewer of those living on or near an peace wall are as receptive to their immediate removal. Many value the feeling of safety that they bring. And without their support, it is hard to see how the walls could ever be anything other than a semi-permanent feature of the Belfast landscape.

My research leads back to the longstanding, structural, economic inequalities within the communities living around the walls. There needs to be a greater emphasis on creating an environment where there is a sense of opportunity, not “quick fix” cross-community contact. The study, Growing up on an Interface, focuses on the experiences of children and young people growing up alongside the peace walls.

It is of paramount importance to ensure good cross-community relations. But only sustained economic investment within the separated communities – communities with often alarming levels of deprivation, inequality, and childhood poverty – can deliver the better living conditions that are necessary to create an atmosphere in which cross-community relations can be improved. Only then will it truly be possible to begin dismantling the walls, this final reminder of our as yet incomplete peace.

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