Belfast’s Separation Barriers: Learning to Reflect Before We Act

A wall 6623I read Gladys Ganiel’s recent article, ‘Vicky Cosstick – Imagining a Belfast Without Walls at the 4 Corners Festival’, with considerable interest. In my own work, I’ve observed that giving specific attention to Belfast’s walls when exploring the lives of interface communities isn’t as common as it might seem. The walls themselves receive only cursory attention, serving either to describe the landscape or- more often- to metaphorically describe ‘walls’ in the people’s hearts and minds. Any connection between the physical walls and the psychological ‘walls’, or what effect the former might have on the latter, is usually left unexplored. The platform the Festival has given Cosstick’s work is to be welcomed.

Some might ask, does it matter? Are the walls that big an issue? Are they a concern for the city as a whole, or only for the people living directly around them? Beyond that, are the walls themselves ‘doing’ anything to us? Do they affect our peace process and efforts to foster reconciliation and a shared future?

We really cannot answer any of those questions until we reflect upon on the walls; not simply as unfortunate by-products of other factors but as a phenomenon in their own right; reflect on them socially, politically, economically and- in my case- theologically, in a much more concentrated way than we have done in the past.

I don’t like using the terms ‘peace wall’, ‘peace line’, or ‘the walls’, for the simple reason that I don’t feel any of them are particularly accurate, nor do they indicate the true scale of the phenomenon. I prefer to use the term ‘separation barriers’, both to emphasize that not every wall in Belfast is a separation barrier and not every separation barrier is a wall, and to give a better sense of scale and context to what we’re talking about.

Simply, the barriers are not just walls; they are, in fact, a large network of walls, fences, gates, commercial properties, and empty ‘buffer zones’ that run through many- but not all- areas of Belfast.

They function primarily as a method of dealing with a variety of complex issues surrounding interface community relations. The fact that these issues very often affect many other aspects of public policy should naturally make them an issue for the populace as a whole.

Crucially, the barriers themselves are a policy; a decision; a budgetary item financed with public money. While perhaps not being the most important- or even the most disturbing- aspect of the Northern Ireland conflict, they are certainly one of the most perplexing:

Constructed to reduce violence, the majority have been built since the paramilitary ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement;

  •  Designed to make people feel safer, the vast majority of deaths during and after the conflict have occurred within sight of them;
  •  Constructed and maintained at considerable cost from public funds, they run through some of the most economically deprived areas of the city;
  •  Stretching for miles and often 6 or more metres high, they are unnoticed and go unmentioned in most of our social and political discourse.

Yet discussion and debate about the barriers has been notoriously difficult. In my experience, when the issue of the barriers is raised, a few phrases repeatedly appear:

‘It’s not the physical barriers that are the problem; it’s the “barriers” in people’s hearts and minds that are the problem.’

Of course, there are ‘barriers’ in people’s hearts and minds, exacerbated by fear, lack of trust, cultural difference, and zero-sum identity politics. But there are also actual, physical walls and fences with steel gates and locks running through the city, particularly- and I think this is crucial- in those areas of the city where the beliefs and feelings in people’s hearts and minds are often the most intransigent. The question we need to be asking is, what effects, if any, are the physical barriers having on the hearts and minds of the people who live around them?

 ‘It’s important to remember that local residents demand the barriers. Any decision to remove them must be entirely up to them.’

Again, there is an undeniably truth in this; it’s absolutely reasonable to give preeminence to the opinions of the residents who will be affected most directly by either the construction or dismantling of a barrier. But once again, little reflection is given to what effects, if any, the overarching policy of publicly-funded, physically-reinforced segregation (because, at the end of the day, that is what it is) is having on Belfast- and the peace process- as a whole. Additionally, is it fair, even with the best of intentions, to make all reflection and debate about the separation barriers entirely dependent on interface communities- already struggling with levels of social deprivation and political alienation significantly higher than other social groups? Are they being expected to sort out a complex public policy essentially on their own?

Beyond that, are the barriers what residents are demanding, or- and this is a much more delicate and complicated notion- are the barriers the default solution on offer in response to residents’ concerns about sectarian-related crime and property damage?

‘Well, what would you do? Take them down?!’

This reaction seems conditioned by years of lazy, off-hand, rhetoric by the basically uninformed, who usually live far away from the interfaces and love simplistic platitudes about ‘tearing down walls’ in Belfast.

The fact is that I don’t want to ‘do’ anything about the barriers; not yet. My greatest concern is that they represent an action taken with almost no reflection. Before we can act, we must reflect. That reflection must emerge from our underlying commitments to peace and justice for all- the cornerstones of our ongoing peace and reconciliation process.

In order for the peace process to be described as truly ‘ongoing’, this type of critical reflection must be an intrinsic part. Our reliance on publicly-funded physical segregation to address so many complex issues of large portions of our city must be a significant part of that reflection.

Jon Hatch is a theologian, educator, and activist. He spent 13 years living and working in North and West Belfast with various reconciliation projects sponsored by Corrymeela, the Irish Peace Centres, and local churches and faith-based groups. He blogs on issues relating to faith, politics, and culture at http://reflectionsforthursdays.blogspot.com.

  • The ironically named “peace walls” don’t just denote no go areas, they have become a kind of barrier / protection (some people believe) against anti social behaviour, missiles being thrown, local residents being tortured by recreational rioting. I don’t think anyone genuinely believes that if the walls were removed there would be a corresponding flood of sectarian violence, but there would, in all likelihood be a spike in this anti social behaviour instead, which is somewhat sectarian in character but is, at the same time, not essentially sectarian.

    This is a city which has become extremely used to violence being resorted to in order to address conflict. The walls reflect that state of mind and it is a state of mind that definitely needs to change.

    As always, it is the how we should / could change or address this state of mind that causes the problems. Events like the 4 Corners Festival certainly won’t achieve this transformation overnight but they are nonetheless important. Creative and innovative thinking to build consensus, develop communities and foster integration will play a crucial part.

  • chrisjones2

    Where I lived in Belfast in the 60s and way pre-troubles there was an invisible line down the middle of the road. Themuns lived on that side. Our area was mixed but 200 yards down the road was oursuns area.

    We had separate bus-stops. Themuns queued and got off at one and oursuns at another. As a 12 year old with friends from both sides and parents who weren’t sectarian I didn’t know why but we all just accepted the norm. Rumours had it that if you used the wrong one you would be beaten up.

    There were even 2 newsagents – theirs and ours. Even today near my home a newsagent has two separate paper racks. One is all Prod and English the other Catholic and Irish. They are 10 feet apart

    Its in our bones and its awful. Even our papers cant share the same rack

  • Tacapall

    I spent a lot of time building those walls/barriers throughout Belfast so I remember what it was like before they were built and to be honest I never heard of the term anti social behaviour until after the ceasefires before that it was just plain old organised sectarianism. Every Tom Dick or Harry who has lived through the experience of the past conflict will acknowledge that the majority of so called recreational rioting is actually organised by other sinister elements within our societies who have an agenda of their own, usually financial, to keep the pot stirring and the walls in place. The locals who live around the walls are brainwashed into believing these walls are needed to keep the peace and allow them to lead a normal life but in reality its those sinister people, paramilitary connected individuals, who turn the recreational rioting on and off like a water tap in order to protect their fiefdoms. Of course there is the added problem now of a whole tourist industry based around the walls, another stranglehold of these sinister elements is the ownership of gable walls and the various parts of the peace walls in their areas for political murals some are more warnings than murals others crude attempts at portraying their version of history. Whatever I cant see these walls coming down anytime soon for obvious reasons.

  • Ernekid

    As someone in their 20’s who’s not from Belfast, I’ve no idea what is the rational for these walls but I’d probably be best to start knocking them down. If Belfast wants to market itself as a modern European destination city it can’t keep its population divided.

    How do you explain these walls to the Polish immigrant who wants to start a family here or to the English CEO considering starting a Belfast base of operations?

  • LordSummerisle

    I see, well speaking as someone who once lived on an interface I can tell you that the rational for the walls was… ah well how can I put this… rational.

  • New Yorker

    Since nobody knows what would happen if the barriers were taken down, why not take one barrier down and see what happens. If all hell breaks out, put the barrier back. If nothing, take down another barrier.

  • chrisjones2

    I recently tried to buy The Times in a shop in Crumlin. The assistant glowered at me. “We sell the Irish Times not the English one” she hissed ….but they do sell it on Sunday. Wierd

  • chrisjones2

    This is a city which has become extremely used to violence being resorted to in order to address conflict….and generate cash for some groups and political capital for others

  • Well they have started taking a few down to be fair, or, in the case of Alexandra Park, operating a gate through a barrier etc.

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/flashpoint-talks-bring-down-the-peace-walls-30494957.html

    It’s a slow process, a lot of apprehension surrounding their removal, but some moves are being made in that direction

  • New Yorker

    Thanks for that link. It seems some smaller barriers have come down and it was not a disaster. I suspect some politicians encourage apprehension for their own purposes.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Good post John, I agree, you are a realist !

  • I suspect you are right in the sense that there are a lot of groups and individuals who have their own agendas for wanting segregation and fear to remain intact. The apprehension of the communities near the peace walls / barriers is still real though, and it will not be an easy process to remove them. I think it is encouraging though that some barriers have come down though and life has gone on, hopefully more will follow

  • SeaanUiNeill

    A very recognisable Belfast to me, too, chris. I did my own underage drinking up the Shankill, sefely away from my own home in the leafy suburbs by Campbell College and remember the old Falls/Shankill interface just below Clonard Monastery, open then.

    But I do remmeber that some of the Falls people came to eleventh night bonfires without challenge, and that it was a quite different apartheid in many ways.

  • Tochais Siorai

    The Sunday Times Irish edition has a fair bit of Irish content, the daily doesn’t. A fair few people are under the impression that the Sunday Times Irish edition is connected to the Irish Times.

  • chrisjones2

    “Blue Bus Land”

    Wonderful phrase

  • MainlandUlsterman

    If the walls are making people able to feel secure and get on with their lives in those areas, let them stay. When they come down it will be because people feel safe with that, not because they are an uncomfortable metaphor for a divided society. We are divided – I don’t see why the security of people at the interfaces should be sacrificed in order to spare others’ blushes. Keep them as long as they’re needed, but take them down as soon as they’re not.

  • aber1991

    So people of Belfast interface areas should be put in danger so that Polish immigrants should feel comfortable.

  • aber1991

    We need thicker walls. We need higher walls. We need longer walls. We need far more walls.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    d’ya think?

  • Practically_Family

    This reminds me of a time I sat in a coffee shop in a small seaside town in Co. Down (I won’t say which for fear of offending or starting a “no such thing” argument.) with a local who unerringly predicted the behaviour of other local pedestrians at a road junction. Apparently there was a line (invisible to outsiders) which could not be crossed by “them” without trouble, the central shopping area was mixed by agreement but on the far side of that was another line which “us” could not cross without the local equivalent of diplomatic clearance.

  • Practically_Family

    The bus stop situation is repeated outside near my home. There are two on either side of a road junction, far closer than the norm.

    Just on opposite sides of an agreed demarcation line.

  • Practically_Family

    I suppose it depends what you call City Centre. Castle Street/Queen Street is pretty central and I don’t think the corner shops stock Rangers News. Ditto the situation Shaftesbury Square wards on Great Victoria Street if you happen to be looking for Celtic View.

  • Practically_Family

    I think a more realistic goal in the short term is to stop more being erected.

  • aber1991

    YES

  • MainlandUlsterman

    glad we cleared that up 😉