The Interface: will the walls ever come down?

16 Dec 2014 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Dec 2014

In the shadow of the wall: life on the front line

The war may be over but the battle scarred front line is still there. Scope asks what the future holds for interface communities.

For Joe O’Donnell Strategic Director of the Belfast Interface Project interfaces are, literally, the final frontier: the biggest outstanding challenge in peace building.

And the reality appears to be that 20 years after the first ceasefires the communities that suffered most during the conflict have derived very little benefit from peace.

O’Donnell said:  “I’ve yet to meet anyone who has said: yes, please I’d love to live in that house with the 40 foot wall around it. The people who live on the interface are those who were there before it went up and can’t move or else people who were moved there because there is nowhere else to house them."

It is no coincidence that interface communities figure so high in Northern Ireland’s tables for multiple deprivation.

People from these areas tend to suffer from higher unemployment, lower educational achievement, they have a greater risk of addiction to alcohol, prescription and illegal drugs, ill health, both physical and mental, and most shameful of all have lower life expectation: as much as ten years lower than affluent areas.

A running sore

And on interfaces you can add to that the stress of living with the fear of violence.

O’Donnell said: “Interfaces are the site of violence but not always the source: on many occasions violence is brought to them and they become victims of trouble that is not of their making. You can add to that the trauma that they have to go through: they have steel roofs instead of normal ones grilles on their windows, there is often overgrown foliage outside which offers protection but means they live in semi darkness, and the fact that so many come and go through their back doors, not the front.”

For O’Donnell peace lines are physical manifestations of the divisions which are everywhere, yet for most of us go unnoticed and unremarked upon.

“Sectarianism is still one of the biggest blights on progress. You find division everywhere. In rural areas it is a townland, a field or a bend in the road. Everyone knows what pub to drink in, what petrol station to go to and who to sell land and cattle to. There are invisible barriers in rural areas: if you live there you don’t think about it, but it hits a stranger in the face."

“We have made progress here: we have an increasingly stable political process, despite all the difficulties, and a reasonably successful peace process that other countries envy, but interfaces are still a running sore, the after effect of 40 years of conflict.”

 O’Donnell has little patience for those who simply call for the walls to be pulled down.

An unfair question

 He says “It’s unfair to say to people do you want the wall up or down. The wall is there because someone wanted it there, often as a preventative measure to provide some security.

“I have lived in an interface area. I have been the last house on the interface I know exactly what it is like. My house was attacked: shots have been fired, petrol bombs thrown - so I’m speaking from personal experience. I know what it is like to put the kids to bed at night and hope that when you wake up the next morning they are going to be safe and your house is going to be safe, and your neighbours are going to be safe.

“Take one example – just ask the police if the wall between the Falls and Shankill was taken down whether they could provide the 24 hour security people on that interface would need. They would say no.

“A better question is to ask communities is would they consider a better alternative:  a better planned area and community, a better shared and open community: not forcing integration but creating conditions where they have the choice to integrate if they wish."

The Belfast Interface Project aims to build trust, capacity and capability across the interfaces, working with people who see those who live on the other side of the wall as a threat.

No turning back

A prime focus is with young, disaffected people who are often disengaged from their own communities and see violence as a buzz. “I hate the term recreational rioting,” says O’Donnell but there is a lot of evidence to show that incidents are pre-arranged and not exclusively sectarian."

Progress has been slow, but is being made. Outbreaks of violence don’t make things any easier, but because inter-community foundations have been laid more and more people from interface communities have a deep-felt conviction that setbacks cannot be allowed to halt reconciliation.

After the ceasefires of 1994 there was serious street disorder in East Belfast. BIP helped to ease tensions by bringing in independent monitors who walked the streets on both sides of the walls to reassure residents on each side that all was calm in the other area. This gradually helped to ease tensions and calm the area down.

Afterwards he remembers many observers saying that the violence would hold back community relations for 20 years. In reality the two communities were back in dialogue within two to three years. This time relationships were stronger than before.

In 2010, when more violence broke out in the East Belfast, O’Donnell was very concerned. BIP had arranged for a large group of young people from each side of the interface to go away together. The night before, as rioting continued he and his colleagues were convinced they would have to call off the trip. Yet the next day every single young person turned up, all with their parents’ permission.

He now believes that there are now too many people who have decided that there is no turning back on the path to better relations to permit their efforts to be de-railed.

The role of planners

He says more resources are required to tackle the issue of interfaces once and for all.

“Just look at how Belfast city centre has changed," he says. “ When the conflict was on there were barriers around the shopping areas, people were searched as they went into stores and the whole place emptied at 5pm. That’s all changed. Yet on the interfaces people are still living behind barriers with drop bars on their doors. Lots of people have seen benefits but those on the interfaces have not 20 years into the process.

“That’s where the focus needs to be, the concentration and we’re just not seeing it."

So what do we need to do differently?

“A significant problem is that we plan for division and separation. The state itself was built on the premise of division and separation."

He believed planners are key: they planned and divided Belfast now he wants to see a planning focus on allowing change to evolve, creating more shared space and creating opportunities for a different way of living.  He also cites investment in education and employment as being critical to turning around areas of multiple deprivation.

However as austerity bites, interface communities and the community groups that work within them are especially vulnerable. Community groups rarely have significant reserves. As they are forced to compete for diminishing resources O’Donnell fears casualties.

And he believes others may abandon cross community work to concentrate on core activities

“As the cuts bite deeper and we come to the stage where some organisations are falling off the cliff, groups will go into survival mode – personal survival mode - so that the first instinct will be to ensure that their organisation survives to serve their own community. So they’ll say “We’d like to do the cross community work but we don’t have the time or resources – that’s the biggest difficulty."

A century of division?

It is not an especially hopeful assessment and it will be hard for many of us not to be struck by three depressing conclusions:

  • that those who suffered the most during the conflict are continuing to suffer today;
  • that those least responsible for creating the financial crisis that led to the austerity crisis are those who continue to pay the price for it;
  •  and that whatever progress has been made since the Good Friday Agreement, there is still a front line to the conflict and despite all the platitudes little sign of change.

O’Donnell concludes: “Here’s the kicker to it all. Ask anyone in an interface area and they will say to you it doesn’t matter if there is a riot every night or every month or every six months it is the waiting in between that’s the worst – the waiting for the next rock or petrol bomb to hit your window. The chance of removing walls when that is happening is next to none.”

The sole dissenting voice in the secret 1971 report on peace walls warned that by planning division his colleagues were setting the scene for a hundred years or more. Forty three years on that view seems disturbingly prescient.



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