Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

How building bridges will tear down the peace walls

Two ex-paramilitaries – one loyalist, the other republican – share a stage tonight to debate the vexed question of peace walls, writes Brian Rowan.

Republican Sean 'Spike' Murray
Republican Sean 'Spike' Murray
Loyalist William 'Plum' Smith
Loyalist William 'Plum' Smith

The two men are from very different backgrounds; one loyalist, the other republican. Men who, at one time, would have been enemies in Ulster's and Ireland's bloody 'wars'.

Yet this evening, William 'Plum' Smith and Sean 'Spike' Murray will share a stage as well as their thoughts on a long journey out of conflict and towards peace.

One has roots in the Red Hand Commando; the other with the IRA. But, today, they are identified with the peace developments within loyalism and republicanism.

So, their trenches have gone. But their communities still live behind brick structures that continue to stand as stubborn statements of segregation – and as a confirmation that, in some places, a high peace has yet to find its way on to the ground.

This evening's event – at the E3 complex on Belfast's Springfield Road – is being staged under the title Beyond The Wall.

And Smith and Murray are being asked to think back to August 1969, to the beginnings of conflict, and then to look forward; to look over those separating, so-called 'peace walls' and to talk about what still needs to change.

This is meant to take the conversation beyond the trite notion of bulldozing the bricks and the simplistic idea of a page-turn into the fairytale that has everyone living happily ever after.

First, the peace needs to be seen to be believed.

This evening's event is one in a series being organised by the Interaction Project now approaching its 25th year of conflict transformation work on the longest interface in Northern Ireland.

"Although based on west Belfast interfaces, our work has transcended boundaries both geographically and politically," said Roisin McGlone of the project.

"We facilitate difficult conversations across a number of different areas, agencies and constituencies.

"Our work is practical and seeks to build trust and confidence, which can lead to more interaction between communities/agencies and the state."

Like a book, the words from Smith and Murray will be illustrated in a photographic exhibition of then and now; what things looked like before the conflict erupted and the walls were built. We will see what filled the space before the concrete dividing line was drawn along that interface and hear calls for strategic thinking on what should fill that space in a properly considered process that seeks to knit the communities together.

"The exhibition and series of seminars will serve to highlight at a grassroots level the legacy of our conflict in interface communities," added McGlone.

"Poverty and violence have combined to leave these areas battling with multiple deprivations.

"The events will not only highlight the work already done by community organisations in building relationships across the interfaces, but just as importantly focus on the future and what urgently needs to be invested in these communities."

Politicians have been invited to let them hear the different communities speak, but probably also to impress on them the message that you can't just knock these walls down. There is no point in having a calendar date as a target for their removal if the different communities would still resist such a move. So, they have to be talked down and people persuaded.

"Investment in and regeneration of interface communities could bring these communities in from the cold and provide them with a sense of ownership of and commitment to the emerging peace process," said Roisin McGlone.

"Reconciliation cannot just be measured in terms of the absence of violence, but also by the absence of fear and increasing the mechanisms which practically address real differences and conflicts."

The challenge, she said, is "creating the conditions where walls are no longer needed".

And tonight's event says something else: it tells us that different people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives of events can tell their stories in the same space.

The wars are over; the peace developing. And as part of that transition, there are many different truths.

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