Peace Walls in Northern Ireland
The Peace Walls were originally designed to be a temporary solution to a dire political situation but have become a vital part of Belfast. While it is hard to determine if the Good Friday Agreement or the surge of Peace Walls built in the 1990s led to a decrease in political violence, their true power has been on the psyche of the Protestant and Catholic communities. Stormont has promised to dismantle all the walls by 2023 and has made efforts to bridge the gap between the two communities, however, ancient sectarian fears and still open wounds have made both communities cling to the walls as their only source of protection from the other. This makes Stormont’s proposal very unlikely.
The walls were erected in 1969 and were inspired by the barricades erected by the local communities to combat the sectarian riots. The riots took place in Belfast, between Lower Falls and Shankill, around the Short Strand area of East Belfast, and on Alliance Avenue, Duncairn Gardens, and Manor Street in North Belfast. The walls were built by the British army and were supposed to be temporary structures. That was why they started off as barbed-wire barriers and were eventually replaced with more permanent structures. These walls were initially without gates, which were added only after the violence died down in the 1990s. As time passed the aesthetic changed from cold steel to brick fences, more fitting for a modern urban area. In 1980, another series of sectarian riots was followed by the building of peace walls in Northern and West Belfast. Even the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 couldn’t prevent the erection of more walls, with about 1/3 of the over 100 peace walls being constructed after 1994. Most of these walls are in Belfast, but they were also built in Derry-Londonderry, Portadown, and Lurgan.
A survey has found that there are 116 gates, walls, and fences in Northern Ireland, although the government only recognizes the 50 maintained by the Department of Justice. It is estimated that if the walls were placed end to end they would stretch to about 34 kilometers (21.1 miles) and the longest single wall is about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). The most well-known wall stretches about 800 meters (2,624.6 feet) and sits between Loyalist Shankill Road and the Irish Republican Falls road.
Over 1000 people living near the peace walls took a survey in 2012. It was found that 22% of the citizens wanted the walls to remain and 58% wanted the walls to be taken down. However, when the survey was taken again in 2015, this changed to 30% of the citizens wanted the walls to remain and 49% wanted the walls to be taken down. Of those surveyed, it was found that 44% of the Protestants wanted the walls to remain the same while only 23% of the Catholic residents felt the same way.
The survey found that only 4 in 10 people ever interacted with their neighbor on the other side of the wall. Despite there being support to keep the walls, 55% also surveyed that they felt that walls presented a negative image of Northern Ireland to the international community.
In another study conducted in 2012, found that 70% of those living near the walls, still feared for their safety. When asked about taking the walls down, 69% of those living near the walls said they would fear for their safety, 58% are concerned about the police’s ability to contain the violence, and 58% would like to see the wall come down “at some point in the future”
Many people feel the wall keeps the peace, even though they may personally dislike the walls. On the Protestant side of the wall, one man said, “I'm not proud of it, but it's there to keep the two communities separated, so there's nobody gets really hurt, because if that peace wall came down there'd be more lives taken." A woman said, “If the politicians are going to say it's a good idea, I don't know what they're thinking about, because there's too much bitterness between the two communities” Another woman said "No. No way does that peace line come down. It's definitely not safe to take it down, and I don't think it ever will be. There's bitter loyalists over there. They're out drinking in the street at night. If you take it down, they'd have easy access here and come over starting fights. You'd just be asking for trouble." Feelings seem to be similar on the Catholic side of the wall. One man said, “The improvement is, no-one's shooting anyone. If you take the walls down, eventually someone's going to end up shooting at each other ”
PERCEPTION-based on Religion
Ulster University conducted a survey on public attitudes towards the peace walls in 2015. Surveys were sent to 4,000 people and 1021 people living near the walls sent in their responses. This survey found that many citizens did not believe the peace process was beneficial.
52% of Protestants felt that the peace process provided no local benefits
25% of Catholics felt that the peace process provided no local benefits
Many citizens associate the preservation of their culture with the walls:
29% of Protestants believe that without the walls their community would disappear
8% of Catholics believe that without the walls their community would disappear
45% of Protestants believe that the walls are necessary to celebrate their culture freely
20% of Catholics believe that the walls are necessary to celebrate their culture freely.
Many people feel the walls are a source of security:
72% of Protestants believe the function of the walls was to protect their community from republican violence
33% of Catholics believe the function of the walls was to protect their community from republican violence
36% of Protestants believe that the function of the walls was to protect their community from loyalist violence
57% of Catholics believe the function of the walls was to protect their community from loyalist violence
However, even with the walls, many do not feel secure:
24% of Protestants feel safe
32% of Catholics feel safe
The community proclaims they want the walls to be removed eventually but make it clear that they do not want the walls to be removed now.
24% of Protestants want the walls to be removed
41% of Catholics want the walls to be removed
44% of Protestants want the situation to remain the same
23% of Catholics want the situation to remain the same
9% of Protestants want the walls to come down now
17% of Catholics want the walls to come down now
25% of Protestants would like the walls to come down in the future
40% of Catholics would like the walls to come down in the future
There is increased traffic and congestion in Belfast, but a committee found that it was the design of the roads and not the peace walls. While the walls are still walls, there have been gates added to encourage people to close the cultural gap. These gates are usually closed only overnight or on Sundays. In 2011, the gate at Belfast’s Alexandra Park, the only European park to be divided by a wall and a common area for the Irish communities, was opened for the first time only for a few hours a day. In the same year, the gate that divided communities in Shankill and Falls road started opening on Sundays.
The citizens are careful to navigate the arterial routes in order to avoid passing through the ‘others’ community. The pedestrian spaces are usually used by one community or other. It seems that the walls do not affect physical traffic, but create a psychological constraint and it is the psychological factors that affect traffic and movement.
It seems that the walls affect access to health and education services more than they affect transportation. According to a survey conducted in 2015, 24% of Protestants feel that the wall negatively affects the access to health, educational, and leisure services
21% of Catholics feel that the wall negatively affects the access to health, educational, and leisure services
These services include the following:
Crèche and day-care facilities
After school projects
Focused work with young people
Support for single parents;
Support for isolated elderly
Support for community development work
Between 1969 and 1999, 40% of all political violence in North Ireland occurred within an urban area. This violence is what prompted the building of the peace walls to begin with. It has been found that violence did not decrease one the walls were built. While there have been less religious and national crimes/terrorism reported since the walls were built, the walls attack like a center for violence. This violence increases in the summer and is fueled mainly by the youth who are just as likely to act out of bored as of any political conviction. However, these peaks of violence have led many citizens living near the walls to fear for their safety and increases their dependence upon the walls.
Despite these fears, the volunteers that monitor the certain segments of the well, via Inter-Action, report that things have improved. One volunteer said, “10 years ago I'd tell you I get a call (as part of the scheme) once a week," she says. "Now, I would get a call about every three months. That's the difference."
There has been a significant drop in paramilitary-style political violence since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, however, it is hard to attribute this to the Peace walls. In 1998, there were 245 attacks, 2002 309 attacks, 2006 74 attacks, 2009 127 attacks, and in 2014 70 attacks. It is interesting to note that from 1998, after the Good Friday Agreement to 2009, 88 walls were built and yet in 2002 and 2009, we see a spike of paramilitary attacks. Additionally, while political violence has decreased, 59% of people who participated in the 2012-2013 Northern Ireland Crime Survey (NICS) said that that crime levels had increased over the years.
The violence seen nowadays seems to be the throwing of rocks with each side blaming the other for anything projectile found near the wall. There are still paramilitary groups out there like the Real IRA and the Orange Volunteers, but experts believe they are not strong enough to cause serious trouble. Ironically, parades are a great source of violence since the Catholics believe Protestant parades are triumphalist and many are hundreds of years old and steeped in ancient history. For the Protestants they are a source of pride, for the Catholics they poke at old and deep wounds.
POLITICS & REMOVAL
Stormont has committed that, if both sides of the communities agree, all the walls will be removed by 2023. However, the likelihood of this happen seems to be very small. Despite the Good Friday Agreement and the recent narrative of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, the horrors of the Troubles is still present and vivid. Public officials warn that the communities are still too polarized and bitter to mutually consent to tearing down the walls. Many are quick to point out that this isn’t the Berlin Wall, which represented an outside force, these walls were built by the communities for protection. They have become such an ingrained part of the community’s psyche, that removing them will cause a great shock.
A wall that crossed Crumlin road in North Ireland was taken down in 2016 and briefly lead to violent incidents, but there is some statistical evidence that crime decreased in places where walls used to be. It seems that the greatest barrier to destroying the walls is psychological and historical.
The Peace Walls have not just become permanent features of the cityscape but have also become permanent features of Belfast’s psyche. While Stormont has promised to take down the walls by 2023, the citizens who live near the walls feel this is dangerous and will lead to renewed civil war. Political violence has decreased in Northern Ireland and the walls are affecting ease of access to health and education services, but the citizens of Belfast still feel that their culture and families are safe as well as the walls stand. Yet, in 2015, only 24% of Protestants and 32% of Catholics felt safe. It is this contradiction that will have to be faced before the walls can come down.