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.