Northern Ireland’s modest and timid ambitions for peace

Malachi O’Doherty points of a long term pessimism that often seems to want to long tail conflict rather than tackle the heart of it. He points to the problem of Belfast’s walled interfaces, in the context of past fatalism:

What was routine back then was the conviction that Northern Ireland’s problems could not be solved.

Read almost any of the books about the Troubles published right up to the early 1990s and the ending is the same, a dispirited resignation to the intractability of the violence, the unlikelihood of our two main communities ever integrating and living at peace.

One small indicator of possible change is the disclosure that the Executive is thinking of working to bring down the peace walls in about 10 years from now. By then the first of them will have been up for 53 years. The Berlin Wall, which stood as a daunting symbol of the Cold War, was only up for half that period.

What are we reduced to when our ambitions for peace and progress are so modest and timid?


  • BarneyT

    If the walls were erected to offer protection to one side, those that choose to dismantle them must assure themselves that this threat no longer exists.

    Chances are the threat remains and the 10 year adjustment period may prove necessary.

    The Berlin wall separated a united people. That’s not the case here. The walls allow the respective sides to remain faceless which perpetuates the problem.

    Personally I would advocate their removal so we could address the problems head on, but then again, I don’t live within a chicken’s fart of an aggressor.

  • JoeHas

    In a number of cases, the threat is low, but the perception of threat is very high. Focus should be on changing the perception of barriers and reassuring people on issues of safety and security.

  • Mick Fealty


    I think is possibly true. It is also possibly true that in some places the walls invite nameless agression.

    The biggest problem though are pressures that build because communities which have an organic inner life are constrained by external frames within which they and their problems are viewed by policy makers.

    This is not sustainable in the long run, especially if, as we have learned from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, 81% of cuts from Whitehall are still to come down the line.

    Questions I have include:

    – do we have the politics to tackle a sustainably normal life for people at the interface;

    – can we afford to sustain the separate lives of people who made rational decision to herd together in single identity silos for safety?

  • BarneyT

    The walls allow each side to depersonalise or even dehumanise….and no thought is given to the impact a missile has when hoisted over the wall. I some ways I think the wall invites that sort of challenge. A caged mentality does generate with increasing disregard for that “other world”.

    Its worth making a “bold” move on this now, particuarly as life in the north (although stressed) is nowhere near as volatile as it once was, when these walls were deemed necessary.

  • Greenflag

    Northern Ireland is a ‘caged ‘ society . While it has always been so the ‘troubles’ just made it worse particularly for the folks at the bottom of each community’s socio economic hierarchy .In densely populated areas the inmates are right up against the walls and can hear themmuns on the other side even if they can’t see them . Physical security is a serious concern for these folks . Now if you are a Gold Coaster or a Malone road resident that’s another world .

    It’ll be a while before any leading politician from either side of the divide calls for the walls to be torn down .

    NI is not there yet- as we have just been reminded from the ongoing street riots in Belfast .

  • Personally I’d like to see the walls stay up. The pressure to bring them down is seemingly from people who live a long way from them. We should at least allow the people that live beside them the biggest say…if not a veto.
    A lot of the campaign seems to be that this does not suit the image we want to project.
    It’s a myth to suggest that the fifty nine walls….nine built after 1998 are only seen in Belfast, Derry or Portadown. Many more walls are invisible but just as real…Carnegie st/Castle Street in Lurgan…the M1 separates the Village from Rodney Parade… fields and grazing cows separate Coagh from Ardboe or Aghalee from Aghagallon.
    Safety IS an issue. Confidence is a bigger one.
    Behind barricades people live out their Britishness or Irishness, fly their flags and wear their Celtic and Rangers tops.
    In the 1950s 1960s I lived in a mixed street in West Belfast. I liked it but it worked because people had an unwritten set of protocols. Don’t play rebel songs too loud. Don’t overdo the flags thing. Don’t play football on Sunday.
    I don’t see how bringing the walls down without an enforceable code of behaviour. Don’t wear GAA shirts or Linfield tops. Don’t be “in your face” for your own security and/or not to cause offence.
    This would actually inhibit “rights” and put Belfast residents on a different footing to folks in Ardboe and Coagh.
    The fact is that we have one border around Norn Iron and hundreds within Norn Iron… makes no sense to remove just 59 of the most obvious.

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s a policy problem FJH, and as such it needs some investment in looking at a range of solutions, and I’m thinking political as well as practical interventions…

  • Sometimes there just isn’t a solution.
    And what this is….is social engineering …albeit benign.
    Arguably from a nationalist perspective, hundreds of internal borders undermine THE border….so that we have a patchwork quilt of Ireland and Britain in the six counties.
    Arguably from a unionist perspective removing internal barricades re-establishes the real border.
    Everyone wants to live together….most in a qualified way.
    Establishing a homogenous society…even if possible….produces a society which is peaceful (good) and content (hmmm).
    We can be becaeful without being homogenous.
    In some ways over the past few months, I’ve been struck by how much back to the future things are….it’s like 1965 all over again.
    Bringing down walls would inevitably lead to mixed streets (1965 terminology) or shared space (2013).
    The barriers to Norn Iron being homogenous in the 1960s were not NHS, British benefits, British education….it was Jobs, Housing and lack of political/cultural parity.
    As two of those three issues (Jobs Housing) have been addressed, a homogenous society should be easier….but why is it not?
    Nothing to do with the walls….mostly an unwillingness to be one society.
    It’s Conflict Resolution….which as you know has been concentrating my mind for a few months. Yorktown, Appomattox, Hiroshima….that’s where…tragically conflict are resolved….the crushing of one idea by another.
    Our Agreement should have no more aspiration than we don’t have violence. It’s enough….especially for people alongside Peace Walls.

  • Professor Yattle


  • Mick Fealty

    Or micro partitionism? I wonder how you see micro borders undermining real ones FJH?

  • I hope nobody minds if I quote AlaninBelfast, a much respected member of the Slugger O’Toole team

    “professor yattle….I struggle to find a recent comment you’ve written on Sluggr that hasn’t taken a cheap swipe at the poster. Why not read the comments policy and then come back and talk about the issues raised in the post”
    (26th May 2012)

  • Mick…in unionist eyes there is but one border ….the official one. I think they actually preferred it when it was extremely visible, customs post and security towers….and heavily armed troops.
    A single yellow line in the road doesn’t really do it for them.
    That single line in the road is usually in places where on this side of the line is nationalist.
    In effect Norn Iron has shrunk….and certainly visiting Crossmaglen, Keady, Coalisland, Toomebridge, Ballycastle….I get the distinct feeling that I’m in Ireland….Millisle, Carrickfergus, Larne, Lisburn, Comber…..I have no problem in thinking this is Britain.
    I think many nationalists share that view.
    And obviously the patchwork nature and believing Norn Iron has “shrunk” gives me a degree of satisfaction.
    If I can’t have all six counties as”Ireland” I will happily take what I can.
    A homogenous Norn Iron would…I think….satisfy unionists that it is all the same right up to Strabane, Pettigo, Belleek, Middletown and Meigh.

  • Professor Yattle


  • Ulster Press Centre

    Over 100 protestant families were driven out of Torrens in North Belfast by the Provisional IRA as there were no walls to protect them.

    It won’t happen again.

    The walls will stay up until the threat is gone.

  • Kevsterino

    UPC, you might want to read the linked article more carefully. You may discover this tidbit, “It is pure dishonesty, however, for anyone to pretend that the sectarianism flows in only one direction”

  • A key feature of counterinsurgency doctrine is population control. This is for two main reasons: first, to protect the population from reprisals and pressure from the insurgents, and second, to prevent the population from aiding the insurgents by providing food, medical supplies, and intelligence about government forces. Fenced-in villages were a key ingredient in both successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgency campaigns in both Southeast Asia (Malaya, S. Vietnam) and Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia, Namibia). In NI their main purpose seems to be to prevent the creation of further terrorists through ethnic cleansing campaigns that were so widespread in Belfast from 1969 to 1976. These ethnic cleansings were first perpetrated against nationalists by unionists and then reprisal cleansings took place in predominantly nationalist areas sometimes instigated by former victims of earlier cleansings.

    The walls won’t come down until it is very clear that innocent people won’t be endangered by that happening. The present flag protests give no confidence that this is the case at present or for some time into the future.

  • Greenflag

    @ fitzjameshorse ,

    A couple of excellent posts above.

    ‘As two of those three issues (Jobs Housing) have been addressed, a homogenous society should be easier….but why is it not? .’

    For two reasons . One is the already built in sectarian segregated areas f, either for protection or from historical location or recent population movements . The second is that while there is in situ an ‘official political solution ‘ i.e the GFA a lot of people even those who voted for the GFA tend to see it as a just a ‘temporary ‘ fix and that sooner or later changing demographics , as Bangordub points out in his piece on the Belfast Ward Census breakdown -will create political turmoil particularly within loyalist factions as they experience more ‘greening ‘ of Belfast .

    The current flags protest does not give comfort to those who would take down the walls .People on both sides have to fully tolerate and accept their political and constitutional and identity differences without recourse to conflict .But that has never been the case in NI , or if it was only for brief periods , and even then there was always an undercurrent of political insurrection against the Unionist status quo .

    There’s an interesting and timely article on RTE re the 80th anniversary of Hitler grabbing power over the ashes of the Weimar Republic and how very quickly what was once an evolving democracy very quickly became a totalitarian state – and mostly with the acceptance of the broad mass of the German people , even those who had voted against Hitler in the 1928 election when the Nazis got 2% of the vote .That vote rose to 30% in 1932 following the Wall St crash of 1929 and the subsequent mass unemployment in Germany .But 30% was enough for the dictator to grab even more power mainly due to the apathy of the majority and the failure of the German political establishment parties who were perceived as ‘failures’ by the majority of voters by 1933.

    Perhaps in the interest of maintaining and developing peaceful relations between the communities in Belfast -residents could be persuaded to wear Green Stars or Orange Stars when they are in public areas or walking the streets . That way most people will know who they are dealing with and will in most cases try not to offend the ‘other ‘ . Ban all political parades and marches in the city for a decade and thereafter have the walls removed and people can take off their ‘hated ‘ identity stars ?

    Draconian ? OTT ? probably . Perhaps like the caged canaries people have evolved to feel safe only in their self imposed sectarian cages ? Sad and life limiting no doubt but then the vast majority of people have always valued ‘security ‘ over risk or changes in values .And that’s not only in Belfast . It’s just that the consequences for those who embrace change or adopt less intransigent attitudes in Belfast may be such that the cost to any individual would /could far outweigh any benefit .

  • babyface finlayson

    Logically your patchwork quilt would be divided into smaller and smaller patches.It’s all a bit ‘Passport to Pimlico’.
    It seems to me that it’s easier to toss a petrol bomb over a wall than to walk into an enemy street and daub slogans on their walls.
    So where is the research, to show the success or otherwise of the walls?
    Opposing factions now arrange on facebook to get it on at Clifton St or where-ever. Is that an improvement?

  • Babyface, please note that I’ve said it’s not merely about protection ….it’s also facilitating Irishness and Britishness. I fully take the point that petrol bombs can be thrown…drive by shootings are more difficult.

    Thank you.
    There is nothing new about Conflict Resolution.
    After the American Civil War …it was called Reconstruction…..the process of re-organising States before re-admitted into the Union.
    After World War Two…it was called De-Nazification.
    After Vietnam, the Viet Cong opened up their re-education centres.
    The key thing is that these were victors and defeated.

    Conflict Resolutionists relegates us (unionist and nationalist) to the level of defeated Confederates, Nazi Germans and South Vietnamese.
    There is far as I can see no political will for all this…and that seems to be the democratic way.
    The undemocratic way is driven by think tanks, institutes and academics…with minimal political support.
    We should resist it.

  • DC

    Maybe it’s partly to do with republican intelligentsia so convinced of their tradition that they don’t see any need to pause for thought and offer a politics that breaks out of their ever-growing group (or so they might believe), there can be no doubt that unionism and even loyalism is far more fractured than nationalism and republicanism which would indicate that unionism has had to develop and indeed split in the face change, some of it unwanted of course.

    Basically if divisions keep people in power and if nationalists and certain republican intelligentsia are so convinced that this power will deliver them a united ireland, what’s in it for them to alter things to get progress over the short term, especially if serious altering could affect the long term goal of a united ireland.

  • We should not lose sight of the fact that the walls were built for very good reasons although, not knowing specific areas, I’m a bit puzzled as to why 9 have been built since 1998. It would be stupid to pick an arbitrary date to take them down. They should only be removed when those living near to them, on both sides, are comfortable with it happening. By all means try things to make people comfortable with their neighbours but it can be hard to do when a small number of yobbos can strike terror into the majority.

  • Reader

    Mister_Joe: By all means try things to make people comfortable with their neighbours but it can be hard to do when a small number of yobbos can strike terror into the majority.
    I suspect those yobbos aren’t too popular in their own community, either. That may be the key to the problem.

  • Greenflag

    fitzjameshorse @ 31 January 2013 at 9:52 pm

    ‘The key thing is that these were victors and defeated.’

    True enough . NI however is a case where both sides won and both sides lost . That message has yet to trickle down to some elements in both communities . Ironically a larger percentage of ‘Unionists ‘ believe they have lost or at least perceive they have lost more so than nationalists . Mandatory power sharing as well as legislation enacted over the past several decades under Direct Rule has been perceived as favouring ‘nationalists ‘ more so than ‘unionists’.
    Whether it has or hasn’t in reality doesn’t matter for those pushing particular political agendas.

    ‘There is far as I can see no political will for all this….’

    As you stated above in your earlier post

    ‘Sometimes there just isn’t a solution.’

    I’d add the qualifier -yet – to that .

    ‘The undemocratic way is driven by think tanks, institutes and academics…with minimal political support.’

    The above are enabled mainly due to the failure /inability of the local politicians to lead -which in turn is to a great extent determined by the ‘resistance ‘ of the ‘tribes ‘ to be led where they don’t want to go . A political Catch 22 . Politicians in NI who get too far ahead of their voters in NI (same everywhere of course ) become ex politicians . Very rarely will a leader emerge who can lead and not just follow the herd .

    While I hear your reluctance re the top down approach by the ‘think tanks ‘ etc the fact is that even the current GFA would never have come into being without the efforts of said academics and even more so ‘outside ‘ politicians -American , British and Irish . The harsh politcal and economic reality is that without the think tanks and the outside financial and political support -NI would long since have gone the way of the Balkans in terms of sectarian dead etc.

    I too would prefer to see a permanent solution come about from below but NI is a case whereby there is no lowest common denominator except the grave or the riot and we all know that therein lies no political solution but just further division .

    Time and maybe electoral demographics are all thats left as NI sleepwalks it’s way to a new consensus .Whether that consensus is a UI at some point or a continuance of the status quo hardly matters any more .