Belfast peace walls: A paradox of leadership


Audio – UU Peace Walls 01 – Dr Jonny Byrne:

At a seminar hosted by the Institute for Research in Social Sciences and the Inter-Institute Peace and Conflict Cluster, Dr Jonny Byrne of the University of Ulster presented his findings of three years of research in regards to public policy on peace walls (interface barriers) in Belfast. His presentation drew upon his 100,000 word PhD thesis and 40 interviews.


In response to intercommunity violence, formal interface barriers were first erected in 1969. There are now 99 identified barriers in Belfast. Dr Byrne noted local politicians and community representatives got involved in the process since 1995. Also, since 2010 primary responsibility for policy in this regard lies with the Northern Ireland Executive.

Back in 1971, an official Working Group on Peace Walls expressed its concern at the erection of interface barriers, that if they remained then the “abnormal becomes the normal”.

Yet the barriers were not going to come down, and policy changed to one of pragmaticism, namely how best to create and manage them. Dr Bryne remarked that current policy, 40 years later, uses the same language.

His main thesis is that these physical barriers are not going to disappear on their own, so policy will need to be created and decisions made to bring them down.

This, of course, depends upon whether you deem peace walls as a problem, or a condition to be endured.

He said that there is a danger of the establishment of a hierarchy of segregation, as Loyalist and Republican communities are influenced by different factors in the discussion of how to progress this issue. To simplify, both start with a desire to improve community safety. But Loyalists express a concern of encroachment, with Republicans demanding more physical space to accommodate an expanding population:


One can see how this contrasting perspective reflects wider Unionist-Nationalist political dynamics — one community hesitant to give what they would see as too much too soon to another community that is ever more confident with their agenda and demands.

And this was inferred in Dr Byrne’s statement, “Segregation is more than the peace walls.”


One slide showed the variety of agencies involved in peace wall policy (sic). Dr Byrne described the paradox of the roles of the Northern Ireland Executive and local communities, whereby local projects improve community relations and add to good practice, but local participants and community leaders look to the Northern Ireland Executive to provide a framework and guidance/leadership for further progress. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Executive’s current position is that further progress will be determined by the local communities, not as targeted or seen to be driven by the Executive itself.

Dr Byrne concluded that the way forward was for a concurrent top-down and bottom-up approach. For Belfast, his specific recommendation was that Belfast City Council be the primary agent to coordinate the rest. This elicited a response later from David Robinson (Good Relations Officer, Belfast City Council), who explained that its Good Relations Committee unanimously endorsed its municipal investment strategy that sets out a vision with codified aim of removing all interface barriers in Belfast.


Dr Byrne suggested that having dealt with interface barriers for over 40 years, Belfast is in a good position to work with other cities/areas that have them, some only joining this club relatively recently. In the subsequent Q&A session, I described my organisation’s work for the Forum for Cities in Transition, which includes Nicosia, one of the cities listed on his slide.

I was intrigued by the paradox of roles that Dr Byrne described, and by a previous questioner who talked about diminishing returns of community based projects.

I suggested that Nicosia’s experience — who’s had its wall for just five years less than our first — may be useful. There, in the 1980s, the respective mayors of the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot sections of the city came together to deal with practical matters, namely cross-border water treatement. Success here led to other, ever more ambitious projects. Sufficient trust was established and a Nicosia Master Plan was created, which has as its aim the unification of the city. The mayors knew this plan would take decades to realise, but it is the plan that is being implemented today.

I am encouraged by Belfast City Council’s vision and Good Relations work, mainly because the structural composition of its Good Relations Committee is the right one — a combination of elected councillors and representatives from the voluntary, community, and minority ethnic group sectors.

This should be replicated at the Northern Ireland Assembly, with non-MLAs incorporated into a committee’s work (or if that’s not allowed, into an ad hoc working group).

I recall this approach during the discussions of establishing what became the Strategic Investment Board, when an Assembly committee recommended the inclusion of the voluntary and community sectors, on a basis that these sectors would be the delivery agents for aspects of its decisions. In the subsequent suspension of the Assembly, direct rule Minister Ian Pearson swiftly quashed this thought (and also told me so in a June 2003 meeting!).

This multi-agency approach is growing in popularity in community development work (e.g. Scotland; UU course on Civic Leadership and Community Development (declaration of interest)). Whereas many (if not most) organisations treat Government Department consultation exercises with cyncism, projects that include various sectoral interests encourage trust. Whether this develops to a greater, Nicosia-style master plan is another matter.

Indeed, even Nicosia isn’t immune to wider Cypriot politics, especially vis-a-vis Turkey and the European Union. Nicosia’s municipal politicians know they aren’t going to solve the Cyprus Question. Yet they all work in preparation for those higher developments.

So, the paradox remains between the local and the national. But at least leadership at the municipal level, at a cross-sectoral basis, demonstrates a best practice model for progress.

Audio – UU Peace Walls  02 – Q&A:

Original posting:

  • Red Lion

    Very interesting. A most pertinant point is the nationalist expansion of territory/ unionist retreat – a very real fear which needs addressing in any cooperation/policy of taking down the peace walls.

    Not sure that one community moving in and another moving out is a ‘shared future’.

    If the peace walls were to come down in Belfast, for example, the Shankill would be squeezed on all sides and its current longstanding heritage and culture may cease to exist in 10-20 years ie become a nationalist area. Lower Oldpark, a small unionist enclave would have its population move out near enough overnight without the protection of the peacewall (they do bear the brunt of sectarian attacks here from republicans on up Oldpark).

  • FuturePhysicist

    There’s plenty of room for leadership in everyone.

  • RyanAdams

    “A most pertinant point is the nationalist expansion of territory/ unionist retreat – a very real fear which needs addressing in any cooperation/policy of taking down the peace walls.”
    The unionist retreat is not as fast as it appears. Its just down to different settlement patterns in the two communities. Its always been more likely for Nationalists to settle within Belfast, in particular within the boundaries of the city council than it has been for unionists. For example, look at a map of Belfast, and then look at the city council boundary – thousands of unionists in edge of town housing estates like Belvoir, Rathcoole, Cregagh, Castlereagh, Monkstown etc. Many of the people living in these estates originally came from all around Belfast before the troubles kicked off and unionists were forced to leave places like Lenadoon, New Barnsley and Twinbrook/Greater Dunmurry (Areema) areas. That’s not including some more recent intimidation in places like Torrens and Whitewell. To be fair though many nationalists are also outside the city boundary in the Poleglass/Collin/Lagmore/Twinbrook area but not in half the numbers unionists are.
    Then you have the middle classes in both communities who opt for different housing solutions too. For example in the case of nationalists, many again have opted for places inside BCC boundaries like many of the ‘leafier’ areas of North and South Belfast, and its only really recently nationalists have settled in larger numbers outside Belfast in places like Glengormley which seems to have the same appeal Carryduff and Crumlin did fifteen years ago. Then for unionists you have many of the developments on both sides of Belfast Lough like Jordanstown and Holywood, not to forget the cluster of towns in the greater Belfast area and Lisburn itself. Just seems to have been the way the cookie is crumbling. The census will give us broader indications into population transitions within the last decade.

  • Red Lion

    I largely agree with your description ryan, inner Belfast is generally more nationalist, outer or greater belfast generally more unionist except notably outer west.

    My point was though, that the peacewalls allow unionist heritage areas in inner belfast to continue to exist. When/if they come down, in the absence of some major policy agreement, inner belfast will likely become mostly nationalist in a relatively few years. Particularly North Belfast. Sandy Row/village with its natural buffer zone of the west link may survive, as might Lower Woodstock, not so sure of Templemore interface as to what might happen there. But the unionist trend of ‘flight to the suburbs/outlying concil estates’ would be speeded up.
    To be more cynical/realistic about it – peacewalls slow down and inhibit acts of ethnic cleansing.

  • I’ve just had a look at the actor ‘credits’ on the second image. The Irish government (Departments of Foreign Affairs and Justice), paramilitaries and external funders have been overlooked. These IMO are key actors, not just influences.

    The walls symbolise the continuing battle over the constitutional question and the associated control of territory – not, in some areas, just street by street but house by house. I should imagine that in some places housing ‘allocation’, both public and private, is at the whim of the local paramilitary godfather.

  • RyanAdams

    I would have to say I would largely agree with that last statement. In relation to north Belfast I believe the housing executive has a lot to answer for the standard of housing in loyalist areas. I believe its a factor which is causing the exodus in places like Tigers bay and lower oldpark. Urban regeneration may actually make these areas and indeed the shankill more attractive to the community and finally put an end to the decline. Paramilitaries pissing off permanently would be the greatest thing that could happen to allow these areas to once again prosper with young families.