Peace: look back to see how far we've come

9 Feb 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 9 Feb 2023

Peace Wall, Northumberland St Pic: Mitch Hodge, Unsplash

It is only when you pause to look back at how things were in Northern Ireland that you can see just how far we have come since the days of mayhem and carnage.

And when you do, you realise that those who want simply to forget the terror of it all rarely experienced it for themselves and are expecting an awful lot, in some cases too much, of those they say should “just move on.”

In building a lasting, stable peace we need to respect that fact and to accept that time and patience are every bit as important as any bold, constructive initiative.

This needs to be acknowledged by all because if it isn’t we risk not only a failure to recognise the progress we have made but also further division, and this time not just between sectarian groups but also between those who have benefited from peace and those who have not.

Even going back to 1990 Belfast was not like the city we see today. In those days people were searched before they entered city centre shops, barriers were built to restrict traffic flows, you had to queue up to enter pubs, army patrols were everywhere and there were very few restaurants. It had a frightening, even sinister feel, especially in the winter months and the city centre was silent and deserted shortly after 5pm every night.

There were bombings and shootings and this time of year, when the nights are still long, it was especially frightening because there were assassins roaming the streets.

You did not have to be a paramilitary for these people to pay you a visit. Being of the “wrong” religion was often sufficient grounds, as was becoming a “legitimate target” on account of carrying out work for the security forces. You could be a taxi driver or indeed anyone at all who stood in the way of a stray bullet or bomb.

And it wasn’t just people in masks who dealt in death – the security forces were very much players in a dirty, squalid war.

Some seemed to have become inured to violence and its effects. In INLA: Deadly Divisions journalists Jack Holland and Henry McDonald described the murder of Billy McMillen - the Official IRA’s commander in Belfast - by Gerard “Dr Death” Steenson of the INLA on the Falls Road in 1975.

McMillen had just been into a hardware shop to buy a bag of nails. He was shot dead when he emerged on the street. As his body lay there and before emergency services arrived, a woman entered the shop and bought six rolls of purple wallpaper without remarking on the corpse she had stepped over to get there.

That was how it was.

Northern Ireland did not suffer that many deaths compared to other conflicts, it was a so-called “low level” affair but still more than 3,500 lost their lives and more than 30,000 were injured. Casualties tended to be in specific areas often around interfaces which gave a grim intimacy to death and meant also that there were areas which were pretty much untouched by the killing.

For all those who lost limbs, who lost family, friends and those who were traumatised by their experiences and took to drink or drugs and could not work, what happened in an instant is just as much a reality today.

Those lost do not return, limbs do not grow back, the suffering can linger it certainly does not stop because it would suit others if it did.

Research shows us that trauma can be transmitted across generations as well, so the suffering does not necessarily stop when those directly affected pass away. For their descendants it can be a legacy of pain.  

Both patience and kindness have to be part of our response.

But there’s more to it than that. As inter-communal violence spread in the early part of the conflict as many as 45,000 to 60,000 were “burnt out” and forced to leave their homes. This was the largest movement of civilians in Europe since the outbreak of World War II.

This in turn led to the secret Taylor Report of 1971 which introduced principles of “defensive planning” to the Belfast area.

These led to erecting “peace walls” and reinforcing ones that already existed physically separating communities and a whole raft of city planning measures often drawn up in consultation with the security forces.

Many of these measures were built for the long-term, Belfast’s Westlink being a prime example.

British civil servant Anthony Hewins was the sole dissenting voice on the panel which drew up the report. He wrote: “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. This seems a counsel of despair.  The word ghetto has been lightly and loosely used in the past. These proposals would give the name substance, and would attract criticism from all over the world.”

The divisions created by the report, often for short term military advantage, are very long term in effect. You might be able to bring down a peace wall over time, but it’s hard to see, for example, how you can get rid of a motorway that cuts off swathes of the city from each other.

And as to the peace walls themselves, you can’t get rid of them because they happen to embarrass the sensitivities of someone who lives in a big house in Cultra.

They can only come down if and when those who live in their shadow no longer feel they need the protection they currently afford.

And that brings us to the elephant in the room, a most uncomfortable truth. Northern Ireland has enjoyed a peace dividend. But that dividend has not been enjoyed by those who suffered the most during the conflict, many of whom are just as badly off today as they were when it was at its height.

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.

That needs to be addressed. These social problems exist elsewhere too but it is unjust and irresponsible to allow a situation to fester where those who went through so much have gained so little.

Especially so when they keep being told by those more privileged and less affected than they were by conflict that it is time to let go and move on.

And to compound all of this, exacerbating division and difference, we still refuse to reform the education system.

Who knows why this is. Perhaps vested clerical interests are too strong to resist. Or maybe the truth is simpler still and that given that most of the policy makers in the Department of Education are alumni of Catholic or Controlled Grammar Schools they are themselves creatures of the system which appears to be so impervious to change, despite the cost, the evidence and public opinion.

Either way progress has been made, life is better. It has been slow, nobody can deny that, but given that many of the deep, structural divisions that still afflict our society and our collective failure to address them it is, when you think about it for long enough, amazing that progress has been made at all.

It is in that context that we need to calibrate our responses to political crises. Yes, the failure to form a government is bad, it is damaging to all of us and whilst it continues we cannot address the many social and economic problems that we face. Many of these crises have also been exacerbated by a central government who, in its disregard for the plight of the poor and its avoidance of its own part in our tragic story has failed the people of Northern Ireland.

Yet for all that those who dreamed the unthinkable have seen the unthinkable come to pass. And further progress will come about, given time, patience and kindness to others. The next phase when it comes will be to ensure that those who suffered the most in the past finally get to enjoy the peace and the structures that perpetuate inequality and division in education and elsewhere are finally dismantled.



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