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

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