Will Belfast ever have a Berlin Wall moment and tear down its ‘peace walls’?

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Will Belfast ever have a Berlin Wall moment and tear down its 'peace walls'?
Northern Ireland’s goverment has vowed to remove the peace walls, but no formal mechanism exists for dismantling them // © Jockel Finck/AP

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Will Belfast ever have a Berlin Wall moment and tear down its 'peace walls'?
Northern Ireland’s goverment has vowed to remove the peace walls, but no formal mechanism exists for dismantling them // © Jockel Finck/AP

In 1971, a secret report by the Northern Irish government criticised the speed with which walls, gates and fences were being constructed in Belfast to separate Catholics and Protestants. The so-called “peace lines”, it said, were creating an “atmosphere of abnormality” in the city. But the Stormont report writers did “not expect any insurmountable difficulty” in bringing down the barricades once the violence had subsumed.

Now, more than 40 years after the British Army constructed the first of those barriers, Belfast is still scarred by them: corrugated iron fences, some as high as 18ft, topped with barbed wire. Defensive architecture, it turns out, is far easier to erect than tear down. The city’s gates and walls have become “part of the built environment”, according to Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster. “The Berlin Wall had to come down for Berlin to be normalised. We have normalised Belfast without taking down the walls.”

Indeed, Belfast’s defensive walls are arguably the most famous of those many “divided cities” riven by ethnic conflict. When I was in Mitrovica, Kosovo, another divided city, ethnic Serbs informed me what a putative peace-building trip to Northern Ireland had actually taught them. “We need bigger walls,” one said.

In fact, the number of barricades in Belfast has actually increased since the Good Friday Agreement brought the Northern Irish conflict to an end in 1998. A 2012 study found almost 100 walls, fences, gates and roads forming “interfaces” between communities across the city. []

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