Let's get serious about the peace walls
The latest survey into interface communities’ attitudes to peace walls has caused much hand wringing.It casts serious doubt over whether the stated government aim of bringing down the peace walls by 2023 is achievable.
Whether or not that happens will depend to a large extent on whether or not the authorities are prepared to seriously address the many issues that these neglected communities face.
The Public Attitudes to Peace Walls survey which was carried out by the University of Ulster is a sobering document, but it also should be the starting point for a new debate about how we can start to move forward.
First of all we need to acknowledge that peace walls are merely the most visible signs of wider, more camouflaged divisions.
The report itself acknowledges that when it states: “Communities are also kept apart in less obvious ways, where motorways, shopping centres, dense foliage and/or vacant and derelict landscapes have been used to define the perimeters of particular communities. This ‘conflict related architecture’ serves as a physical reminder that the problems of hostility and fear in Northern Ireland have not yet disappeared.”
This is important to remember. There are interfaces everywhere and many of them will not be removed in any of our lifetimes: they are the result of deliberate planning, often on the advice of the security forces as previous Scope articles here and here have revealed.
So removing peace walls, no matter how laudable that might be would not by itself address the fact that Belfast has been deliberately planned to segregate communities from each other.
It also means that the issues that divide and separate us are not confined to those people living on each side of a wall. It is a much more widespread problem than that.
Also whilst interfaces are often the scenes of violence the trouble is very rarely instigated by the people who live on either side of them. These people are victims and not the cause of violence.
Living on an interface can not only be physically dangerous it is also stressful. It is not fun to live in a house so close to a wall or dense vegetation that you have to have lights on inside all day every day, even in the height of summer. It is not fun to have reinforced windows and roofs and it is not fun to be deprived of sleep at night when trouble breaks out. There are few, if any, people who choose to live in a house with a 40 foot wall at the end of the garden.
The survey reveals that since 2012 less people in interface communities believe the walls should come down. Fears for their safety is an important factor in that.
It is hardly a co-incidence that there has been street violence during the intervening period, over parades, and of course the flag dispute.
If politicians are serious about bringing down the walls and promoting community cohesion they too have a responsibility to conduct themselves in a manner that assists that. This is not about them abandoning long held principles, it is more about achieving a more mutually respectful political discourse and for politicians of all parties to accept their responsibilities in this regard.
Most importantly of all is the stark reality that interface communities are pretty much universally areas of multiple deprivation. The physical barriers reinforce and perpetuate that, isolating areas and locking their residents into poverty.
These are communities that have seen precious little if any peace dividend. Poverty and deprivation in their areas is as bad as it has ever been. The conflict may be over, but the people who bore the brunt of it on the interfaces are seeing no tangible benefit. Indeed quite the reverse public spending cuts and welfare “reform” inevitably hit the poorest in society. We are left contemplating the perverse irony that people who suffered the most during the years of violence are now being expected to pay a heavy price for an economic crisis which they had no part in causing.
This is clear from the survey which reveals that among Catholics, only 3% reported an improvement in economic conditions, while only 1% of Protestants noted the same
So if we are to build confidence, trust and cohesion, we need to ensure that the future holds tangible benefits for these communities. This will involve a significant programme of regeneration and all that implies around providing training, work and the opportunity for people on both sides of the wall to at last be given the life chances they deserve. To date the plan to bring down the walls, as the report notes, has not been matched by the funding necessary to achieve that.
At the same time right across the city there are community groups on both sides of the wall quietly working away, slowly building trust and confidence between divided communities who have so much in common in terms of economic and social development. Many of these groups are finding funding harder to access as austerity bites. They are integral to building social cohesion and their funding should actually be increased if the aspirations to remove the walls are to be realised.
Time and again we are being told that Northern Ireland cannot be a special case and that there is no legitimate reason for treating it as such so long after the conflict ended.
This is perverse. The interfaces were created as short term security measures and the entire city was planned to promote segregation. We are now locked into that and the Westminster government and the security services were responsible for it. The reasons for doing so may have been compelling at the time, but if we are to truly move on, we will need a significant investment in those areas living with the daily consequences and economic implications of segregation.
If that doesn’t make us a special case, what does?
Taking the walls down can only happen with the consent of the communities involved, but there is a much wider responsibility here and unless and until that is accepted and the necessary investment provided it is hard to see how progress will be made. Anthony Hewins, the sole dissenting voice in the secret Taylor Report warned "When a city is re-developed a pattern of life is laid down for at least a century… I find myself in disagreement at the proposals that the divisions in the community should be accepted as a feature of life which must inevitably persist for a hundred years or more.
He wrote those words 44 years ago, and by his analysis, taking the walls down by 2023 looks wildly optimistic.
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