The Peace Walls – Belfast.

Following the 1969 Belfast Riots and the start of the period known as The Troubles, the Peace Walls were erected. Originally intended as a temporary measure, they proved so effective they quickly became a wider, longer and more permanent structure currently stretching over 21 miles across the city. The most prominent section of the Peace Wall separates the Loyalist Shankill Road from the Republican Falls Road in West Belfast. This four mile square flash point, where one fifth of all those killed during the Troubles died, is home to over half of the city’s peace walls.

Perversely, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 bringing violence in Northern Ireland to an end, the number of walls has actually increase. A 2012 survey revelaed the number of walls, fences, roads and ‘interfaces’ now stands at 100, a steady increase from the original 18 errected in 1969. These walls are still routinely closed at 7PM each evening until 7AM the following morning and remain closed throughout the weekend.

Despite the fact that almost 2 in 3 people living in areas segregated by the peace walls cannot envision a time that the walls will not be necessary, Northern Ireland’s power sharing government have nonetheless set 2023 as a target date for them to come down. According to research led by the Ulster University, 58% of all peace wall residents were worried about the police’s ability to maintain peace and order if the walls were taken down. 37% fear violent incidents, but only during anniversaries/dates or marches with 27% of those fearing there would be constant violence. Conversely, among the general population, 76% would like to see the peace walls come down with 64% feeling it should be a big priority for those in power in Northern Ireland. 60% can envisage a time where there are no peace walls.

While it’s easy to say that Belfast should follow the example set by the German government in 1989 with the toppling of the Berlin Wall, a not dissimilar structure which, for decades, cut an urban landscape in half like an ugly scar, this attitude reflects a very real dissonance between the politicians, general public, residents of the interface and the dozens of ‘conflict tourists’ who visit the walls daily. While visitors are content to take their pictures next to masked UVF gunmen and a larger than life Bobby Sands, for residents living in the shadow of the walls, these murals and the sectarian violence they represent are all too real.

What has struck me most everytime I visit Belfast is the close proximity of these neighbourhoods to each other. I always imagined that the Falls and Shankill Roads were miles apart, on opposite sides of the city but, in actual fact, sometimes all that separates both is a wall. A peace wall. Staunchly Catholic homes often share a garden wall with vehement Loyalists. With a whopping unemployment rate of almost 48%, particularly among the youth, it’s easy to see how tensions can flare and, in such a volatile area, can often be the spark to ignite further violence.

With segration costing Stormont an estimated £1.5 bn per annum, there have been some recent successes in terms of cross-community relations but, for the most part, progress is slow. In 2011, a so-called peace gate was installed in the 3.5m iron fence in Alexandra Park (Europe’s only public park bisected by a wall, which was built in 1994 to stop the open space being used for sectarian clashes) and, since then, has operated largely without incident. However, attempts to do likewise in other areas of the city, for example Flax Street, have been met with resistance. Although residents on both sides have agreed to a similar peace gate, plans have come to a standstill with the authorities saying they are unwilling to introduce expensive traffic calming measures.

Recent tensions threatened to once again devolve and destabilize the Stormont Government this summer following the involvement of IRA men in the murder of Kevin McGuigan, the ongoing issues with the Parades Commission and occasional violent incidents on both sides. There is little political will to reach agreement on many issues, including the peace walls and, according to Rab McCallum, a republican ex-prisoner who works for the North Belfast Interface Network (NBIN) “There is no momentum, there is no resources and the government haven’t provided a vision of a united community. They haven’t sold the benefits and opportunities”. Although there have not been any large scale inter-community violence that the walls were designed to prevent in over a decade, the lack of political will coupled with the lack of agreement from those communities most affected, mean it is uncertain when, or even if, the walls will ever be taken down.

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Festival Essentials

With festival season just around the corner, festival first timers around the country are scratching their heads wondering what do you ACTUALLY need to pack for a successful Irish festival? Read on..

When it comes to packing for festivals, most of the lists are geared at Burning Man-type forays into the desert and seeing as we are unlikely to ever experience such a heatwave here’s a more practical list with a distinctively Irish twist.

  1. Your Ticket.

This goes without saying but, make sure that you have your ticket before you leave the house. The security staff at festivals don’t care if you can tell them exactly which dresser the tickets are left on and, without your actual ticket, chances are you’re not getting in.

2. Wellies or boots.

This is pretty self explanatory. It’s Ireland. It rains. Rain + hundreds of drunken eejits wandering around in circles = mud. It’s definitely worth bringing a spare pair of tackies aswell; walking around in wellies for a whole weekend can really hurt the arches. Long welly socks (try Penneys) also prevent chaffing.

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     3. Portable Phone Charger.

Loosing your friends is part and parcel of going to a festival but when you haven’t seen your tent or your crew in 36 hours it’s useful to have a back up charge so that you can make a quick call to track them down. Plus you’ll obviously want to send a few sneaky Snapchats to prove how much fun you’re having. Pics or it didn’t happen, right? This leads on nicely to #4

4. Tent

Don’t make the mistake of taking on a festival without a tent. Even if it’s just a €20 pop-up job, it’s always better to have a base camp, even if it is just to store cans in. If you are going with a group, a gazebo is a great investment but check the festival site before you splash out as many of them do not allow gazebos. To save yourself lugging a tent all the way from the car park, Pamper the Camper lets you order your camping equipment online and pick it up at the festival. The picture below is a complete set for 4 people and costs just €250. Full details are on their Facebook page (Pamper the Camper)

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5. Yoga mats/Camp mats/Air Mattresses.

Depending on the budget, you can pick up a cheepie mat in Dealz for about a fiver or an air mattress in Argos for considerably more. Just don’t forget to bring a pump) Regardless, pack something to sleep on. Regardless of how nice the weather it, the ground is freezing at night and lying directly on the ground or the tent’s groundsheet saps the heat from your body. You’d be surprised how much difference a sheet of foam can make.

6. Ear plugs.

If you are unfortunate enough to be camping next to the ALAN! STEVE! brigade or if you plan on taking a disco nap, these guys will be your best friends. Available for about a euro in all decent chemists, stick a pair in your wallet, you’ll thank me at 6AM on Sunday morning.

7. Drugs.

Legal ones, obviously. What kind of blog do you think this is? There’s nothing worse than waking up in a baking hot tent with a mouth like Ghandi’s flip flop and a thumping headache. A Molotov Cocktail of Neurofen Plus (headache), Diaoralite (re-hydration) and Motilium (funny tummy) is just the trick so, when you’re calling in to the pharmacy for the ear plugs, stock up on the medicine while you’re at it. For those fellow heart burn sufferers, grab some Rennie or Gaviscon too!

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8. Plastic bags.

Do your bit for the environment and bring along a few black bags for rubbish. They are also handy for storing dirty/wet clothes. Another handy trick is to bring a ziplock bag to keep your phone dry. If you want to be very fancy, stick a little sachet of silica gel (the ones you get in the bottom of new handbags) so that any moisture that does get in is soaked up and doesn’t seep into your phone.

9. Back pack.

Many festivals allow you to bring your own drink into the arenas once the bars have closed so bring a little back pack for carrying booze. It’ll save you wedging cans down the sides of your wellies which is as painful and ineffective as it sounds. Bonus tip, make sure your wallet is waterproof to avoid anything you might have in there from disintegrating. If you’re a smoker, a metal tin is essential to prevent your fags/rollies/skins getting completely waterlogged.

10. Mixer

10 cans in and you’re still not drunk. Time to switch to the hard liquor. Oh wait, no mixer. The going rate for a 500ML bottle of pop at a festival is anywhere from €3-€5. Do yourself a favour and hit up the 2 x 2L bottles before you head off.

Other useful items: Tent pegs, baby wipes, tissues, toilet paper, empty water bottle, torch, food, sun lotion, fleecy jumper, snacks, vaseline or chapstick, spare socks.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t forget to pack a winning attitude. You’re in a field full of like-minded lunatics for 3 days of wreckless abandon before you crawl back to reality, broken but happy. Get in among it and have a tip top weekend.

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GPO Witness History

The Easter Rising 1916 centenary trail continues, this time taking in a visit to the GPO Witness History attraction nestled in the basement of the iconic General Post Office building on O’Connell Street.

Billed as a ‘highly immersive and engaging exhibition’ that ‘puts you right inside the GPO on Easter Week in 1916’, this is definitely one of the most comprehensive and imaginative museum exhibitions that I have visited. As the designated headquarters for the rebel leaders during the Rising and one of the only buildings to survive the shelling, the historical and cultural importance of the GPO cannot be overstated and this exhibition certainly does it justice.

The self-guided tour begins with a model of the GPO as it currently stands, reminding visitors of the sheer size and scale of the building in which they are standing.

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In the next room, the exhibition begins in earnest. Space is divided between tall glass display cabinets choc-a-block with memorabilia including an extensive collection of uniforms from both sides.

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A touch screen accompanies each display cabinet, giving a comprehensive overview of the contents of each and a more detailed account of the individual artefacts. Some of the more interesting items I encountered were the signed orders from Dev and Frank Aiken to ‘dump arms’, a Volunteer cap badge, signed letters from Michael Collins and, of course, an original copy of the Proclamation.

The jewel in the crown is the 15 minute audio visual display, shown on an arced screen on a continuous loop. The video begins with the lead up to the Rising; Roger Casement’s arrest on Banna Strand and the scuttling of the Aud, the Castle Document and Eoin MacNeill’s subsequent discovery that it was a forgery and the chaos of orders and counter-orders for the Volunteer movements due to take place on Easter Sunday. Flash forward to Patrick Pearse on the steps of the GPO reading the Proclamation and the viewers are plunged into the heart of the action. The video cleverly uses an old map of Dublin to zoom in and out on the areas of action, bringing the events of the Rising to life on the screen.

Audiovisual booths also run along the length of one wall showing leading academics and scholars debate the success/failure and the consequences of the Rising and are well worth sitting down to watch for a deeper understaing of the Easter Rising.

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Overall, this was a fantastic exhibition and well, well worth a visit.

Tickets: €10 adult, €7.50 student, €5 child. Open daily 9 AM – 5.30 PM.