The ‘peace walls’ that still divide Belfast, built by the British army in 1969, are a daily reminder that fundamental issues relating to community identity, integration and sectarianism remain unresolved. In May 2013, the Northern Ireland Executive committed to reducing or remove all peace walls by 2023. However, within six months of the pledge a retractable, security fence in the at an interface between unionist and nationalist areas of the city was constructed. Bringing down the walls may be more difficult than hoped, writes Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Jonny Byrne.
Since the first paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, the peace and political processes in Northern Ireland have addressed several politically sensitive issues such as policing, paramilitary decommissioning and power-sharing. Until now, one issue that has remained absent from both processes has been its so called ‘peace walls’. Though initially constructed as a temporary response to sectarian violence and disorder, their existence and impact has been enduring. Aside from the two cranes, Samson and Goliath, which dominate the city’s skyline, it is these peace walls and interfaces that have become iconic symbols of Belfast and its conflict.
First constructed by the British Army in 1969 as a temporary, military response to sectarian violence and disorder, these walls, barriers and fences continue to dominate the landscape in urban, working class communities across Belfast. Although there remains a degree of confusion about what constitutes a peace wall or security barrier because of the absence of any agreed classification system, academics and practitioners suggest that there are currently over ninety such barriers in the city stretching to almost 30 miles in total length. At a time when Northern Ireland is still applauded as a ‘success story’ in terms of international peace building, these walls are a daily reminder that fundamental issues relating to community identity, integration and sectarianism remain unresolved.
Attempts at both a political and a community level to try to address issues of community identity, integration and sectarianism have recently taken on increased importance. In May 2013, the Northern Ireland Executive published Together: Building a United Community – a policy document which set out the power-sharing Executive’s approach to building a shared society in Northern Ireland. In it, the Executive made a commitment to reduce and remove all peace walls by 2023.
Our own study into public attitudes and perceptions of peace walls in 2012 provided the first set of baseline figures which informed those tasked with formulating actions and implementing plans to deliver this ambitious policy. Our results showed that 69% of respondents who lived closest to the peace walls felt they were still necessary because of the threat of violence and 76% indicated their belief that the walls made people feel safer. This suggests that people are continuing to frame their attitudes towards physical segregation within a security and community safety context. Indeed, 58% of respondents that lived closest to the walls were very/fairly worried about the police’s ability to preserve peace and maintain order if the peace walls were ever removed.
When asked about the future, 58% of respondents said that they would like to see the peace walls come down now or sometime in the future. However, only 38% could actually envisage a time when there would no peace walls visible in Northern Ireland indicating that the public may be unable to neither visualise what a city without walls might actually look like nor have faith in a process that could facilitate such a change. Perhaps such conservatism was well founded. Within six months of the establishment of a peace walls strategy within the Together: Building a United Community document, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice (with primary responsibility for peace walls) has already taken a decision to construct another new wall (of sorts) – a retractable, security fence in the grounds of a Catholic church in East Belfast which sits at an interface between unionist and nationalist areas of the city. This decision was taken despite the overall target to remove all walls and barrier by 2023. The Northern Ireland Executive have struggled to translate their aspirations of a shared society into a tangible reality and public expectations have been dampened again as a consequence. Removing all walls by 2023 yet adding new walls in 2013 – the maths don’t add up…
This article was originally published on the PSA’s Insight blog.
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