Life in the shadow of the peace walls

27 Oct 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 27 Oct 2017

To many Belfast’s peace walls are either an embarrassment or else a macabre visitor attraction. Those who live in their shadows are routinely patronised and often demonised.  

Back in 2013 when we still had a government it boldly told us that they would all be gone by 2023. Yet with just over five years to go we still have 100 of them covering 21 kilometres.

A survey published by the International Fund for Ireland’s Peace Walls Programme sheds new light on this. It makes the astonishing claim to be the first to only ask its questions to the people who actually live on the interface. If this is correct, and we have no reason to doubt it, this is shocking and is part of the reason why government has made such little progress.

It also helps to explain why when the Peace Walls Programme, which helps interface communities to create the conditions that can lead to the removal of barriers, started working in the Lower Oldpark area it got an initially hostile response. Sarah Lorimer, project coordinator explained: “People thought we were an arm of government coming in to tear down the walls.”

The survey provides indisputable evidence of what people have long been saying in these neglected and comprehensively misunderstood areas for years. Of those questioned 63% said that safety and security issues were their primary consideration at the barriers. Most – 68% - would like to see them gone during the lifetime of their children or grandchildren, yet the prime motivator here is fear.

It is all very well to say that this fear is misplaced. Yet amongst those who sneer are people who either live or would like to live in one of those fancy gated communities that are springing up in south Belfast. They have barriers and security systems too, segregating the wealthy from the poor so that they feel safe.

For those who think of our interfaces as an embarrassment, ponder this: gated communities are growing rapidly all over the world and in many countries they are patrolled by armed guards.

The reality is that nobody on either side of our peace walls really wants to have a 40-foot barrier at the end of their back yard or garden. They do not want to have to leave the lights on all day because they don’t get any natural light. They don’t want special fire-resistant tiles on their roofs or grills on their windows. They just happen to be afraid.

The people who live in the shadow of the walls are the victims of violence and disorder. Perpetrators often come from elsewhere. Those living on interfaces are typically well down the pecking-order for housing allocation. Many are from ethnic minorities, new to the city. In areas of multiple deprivation – and pretty much all peaceline communities are – there are growing problems of mental ill health, drug and alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour.

These communities suffered disproportionately during the conflict -nearly 70% of murders took place less than 500 yards from interface barriers and almost 85% of the killings occurred within 1,000 yards.

Yet whilst there is growth and opportunity elsewhere, interface communities have had no “peace dividend”. They continue to fester: neglected, forgotten until the next riot which more often than not is blamed on those who just happen to live there.

To compound the problem interfaces are merely the most visible element of a process planned during Direct Rule at the advice of the military. Students of urban design call this “Defensive Planning” the deliberate segregation of communities for security reasons, not just by walls but by roads, including in Belfast’s case the West Link. 

When these ideas were first mooted in the secret Taylor Report, the one dissenting member of the panel stated that what was envisaged would take 100 years to undo. That, sadly, was an understatement. You can bring down walls, you can’t quite so easily demolish roads, junctions, parks and shops those invisible barriers that we don’t even notice any more.

But they still have impact. The net result of segregation is not just to divide communities and inhibit reconciliation and good relations. It also leaves areas cut off, isolated, inhibiting regeneration and the mobility of those who live there.

So what is to be done?

Organisations like the IFI and the network of community interface groups across Belfast are working steadily to develop stronger relations between communities. Unsurprisingly those on either side of barriers find when they meet that the challenges they face in their lives are broadly the same. Relations are often positive.

But that in itself is not a reason to remove the walls. Before that can happen they need to know that it is safe to do so and that the right levels of protection are in place when they do.

Every person’s home needs to be a place of comfort and security. That is fundamental to the very concept of home. Therefore this process, as the IFI so rightly acknowledges, has to be driven by communities at a pace they themselves feel comfortable with.

When it said it would take the walls down the Executive also pledged an ‘Interface Barrier Support Package’. It is not clear what this will comprise and where the money will come from to fund it. This needs to be clarified and meaningful funds provided to make a tangible difference to the wealth and well-being of communities. The British government should make a significant contribution, given its former role in creating physical division. The people who suffered the most in the conflict deserve that.

Finally, of course, community confidence in its own safety is itself dependent on external factors. Political instability, street disorder, provocative “cultural” displays and inflammatory language from political and community leaders all impact on this. There is evidence that community views on the presence of the walls yo-yo over time reflecting the overall political climate. Currently the omens are not good.

The IFI should be commended for its work. Statutory agencies should follow suit. It was a serious error to set an arbitrary 10-year deadline for the removal of the walls. They are very slowly coming down in some areas, but this work must be led by communities at their own pace and funds must be provided to help them every step of the way.


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