Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Off the wall: What life is really like in shadow of the peace line

From the woman who has made a rockery from bricks thrown across the peace wall to the man living behind boarded up windows, Ivan Little meets the unlikely stars of a new TV documentary

Shared hope: Jackie Upton, a Protestant and Seanna O'Hara (right), a Catholic, at the peace wall in Bryson Street, Belfast
Shared hope: Jackie Upton, a Protestant and Seanna O'Hara (right), a Catholic, at the peace wall in Bryson Street, Belfast

In a corner of a tiny garden in east Belfast stands a bizarre illustration of the sad reality that it is literally just a stone's throw between Protestant and Catholic homes in one of the city's most troubled districts.

For in a testimony to waste-not-want-not resourcefulness, a woman whose home is regularly in the firing line for missiles thrown from the other side of the sectarian divide has used the bricks that land in her back yard to build ... a rockery.

In many ways, it's a monument to hatred but at the same time it's proof of the lengths – or heights – that young people will go to launch their attacks.

For they somehow manage to hurl their bricks, stones and even golf balls over a 40ft monstrosity of a wall which divides the nationalist Short Strand from the loyalist homes which surround it.

It's called a peace wall but it doesn't always live up to its name to keep the peace.

For no matter how many times the authorities build it bigger by adding corrugated iron, barbed wire or mesh on top of the bricks, the rival mobs still manage to breach it.

But that's not to say that the very public problems of east Belfast are the only show in this troubled part of town.

For, quietly and without fuss, in the background elements from both communities are trying to build bridges instead of barriers in a striking example of unsung interaction at the interface.

The peace wall may well be here to stay but community activists are trying to bring down tensions and demolish the myths that Protestant and Catholic residents in east Belfast are all neighbours from hell.

The work which goes on in the shadows is one of the issues featured in a new BBC documentary which examines what life is like at what they're calling the coalface of the interface, where the spectre of violence is only a flag protest, a random brick attack or a Rangers-Celtic result away.

The one-hour Triplevision production focuses on the extraordinary stories of ordinary people on the frontline – or the borderline – and it doesn't identify them beyond their Christian names.

Like Jimmy, the pensioner whose windows are always boarded up because he can't see the point of having his broken glass repaired. "If you were claustrophobic you would go crackers," he says, and his sense of humour endures as he talks about paint-bomb attacks on his home.

"I have two different colours of paint over my plants in the garden and on the back door. They paint the back door for you while they're rioting," he laughs. "Only you mightn't like the colour, that's the only thing, or it mightn't have been put on very level."

Then there's Chris, the young man in the wheelchair who says the most common things to come over his wall "are whatever's on special offer in the off-licence", though the odd petrol bomb has worried him more.

In almost throwaway fashion too, Chris reveals how his home is getting a new roof which is bombproof and bulletproof. "So hopefully if any missiles come over they should be fine," he adds.

Photographer Frankie Quinn (far right) tells the documentary-makers, whose programme is part of the True North series, how he has chronicled the history of the peace walls in Belfast for the last 20 years.

He also recalls how his family were burnt out of Bryson Street in the Short Strand after the notorious Battle of St Matthew's in June 1970, when three men were killed as the IRA and loyalists exchanged shots near the Catholic church on the Newtownards Road.

Of the east Belfast peace wall, he says: "It was built to last, unfortunately" and he ruefully reflects on how the Army promised at the start of the Troubles that the barriers were merely temporary and wouldn't be like the Berlin Wall.

"But 40 years later we have 48 peace lines in Belfast alone," says Frankie.

"Generally they have had a negative effect on community relations but on the other side people need to feel safe."

In the documentary a pensioner called Madeline – whose pet dog is sometimes too frightened to go out to the back of her home – says no-one was consulted about the erection of the peace wall.

She still has a friend in the Short Strand. "If they say she's a 'taig' or whatever that doesn't come into it. She's my friend and she will always be my friend," says Madeline.

The two people who figure most prominently in The Wall are women who have been particularly affected by the Troubles.

Seanna O'Hara, from the Short Strand, lost her father in a loyalist ambush on his taxi off the Lisburn Road in Belfast in April 1991, his first night behind the wheel of his cab.

And Jackie Upton, from the Newtownards Road, whose father was in the UDA, was at one time the only loyalist woman prisoner in Armagh jail, having been convicted of an armed robbery.

The women live only a short distance from each other but until they started their groundbreaking cross-community work, they were worlds apart.

Jackie told the Belfast Telegraph she agreed to participate in the documentary in an attempt to show what is really happening in east Belfast away from the headlines.

"I want the message to go out that there's a lot of good work here. We are all just ordinary people trying to get on with our lives in unusual circumstances," she says. "We all know the risks involved in living here and our children are brought up to be aware of the dangers. Anything could kick off at any time and I think that is what makes the community close-knit.

"Our cross-community work here in the Pitt Park women's group started a couple of years ago and is important to us. Sometimes people will point the finger and talk about us going into Short Strand for a cup of tea.

"Occasionally people do back off and they are afraid but we are trying to set the example and if anyone criticises us, I will say that if someone staunch like me from a paramilitary background like me can do it, anyone can. It doesn't make me any less of a unionist or a loyalist," she adds.

Women from the two sides are currently involved in an inter-community Come Dine With Me project, where they meet up for culinary demonstrations preparing for a cook-off, and there are weekly pensioners' lunches and bingo sessions as well as an annual carol service, where a choir parade goes in and out of the respective Protestant and Catholic areas.

"There's good positive work here amid all the c**p and while it's difficult at times we are still trying to maintain it," says Jackie, who liaises closely with Seanna in the Short Strand area.

She agrees with her Newtownards Road counterpart that the outreach across the interface is having significant success despite the recent soaring tension over the flags protest and the marching season.

"It's vital work. And it's a lifeline for people to get together to speak about how they feel," says Seanna. "Some of our women have never met a Protestant before. And some of the women on the other side have never met a Catholic.

"The trouble doesn't go on all year round. But there are a lot of things happening behind the scenes all year round. We have good relations with the women in the Pitt's Park group and we are all working together towards a cross-community fashion show in November."

Seanna says that women on both sides face the same difficulties over health and education, as well as struggles over money and rearing their children, and that they're all aware of precisely where their opposite numbers stand – and stood – in the troubled past.

Seanna adds: "We have ex-prisoners in our group and it is not an issue. We all know each other's backgrounds and we would be sensitive enough not to speak about them.

"But at the same time if the subject ever did arise we wouldn't shy away from it. We would sit down and talk about it quite openly because there is no point in papering over the cracks. We need to fill in the cracks before we start papering over them."

It's patently clear that the edifice of peace in east Belfast is built on fragile foundations and the ongoing projects between the two communities are sometimes stalled by trouble in the wake of a riot, a protest or an unforeseen sectarian onslaught from one side on the other.

Normally, of course, it doesn't take an Einstein to predict when the trouble might erupt and the documentary follows the two sides through the tense summer marching season and the winter of discontent over the flags controversy at Belfast City Hall.

One woman called Alison is seen sweeping away glass after over-the-wall attacks but she can't brush away the more deep-seated problems and has even had to move her children away from her back bedroom beside the peace line.

The documentary may leave viewers wondering why anyone would live in houses like these but few of the people interviewed would quit their homes and the message from both sides of the wall is the same – that residents don't want trouble on their doorsteps or anywhere else.

Filmmaker Eamonn Devlin says the arguments don't just pertain to the peace wall around the Short Strand district, adding that people who live on the interfaces are just like everyone else.

"The only difference is that they have a 40ft wall in their back garden, or at the hint of trouble, they are potentially at the coalface," he explains. "The wall therefore is an integral part of their lives and has a significant role to play in how they relate to those who live on the other side."

Eamonn's colleague Gerard Stratton says in making the programme he was struck by how the normal perceptions of life on the interfaces didn't match what life was really like on the ground.

On both sides in east Belfast, among the people featured in the documentary, there's an over-riding sense that while they're staying put they don't want the wall – their comfort blanket some of them call it – to go either and indeed some are urging the authorities to make it even higher.

"If the wall came down I would have to move out. I wouldn't live here," says Kathy, the woman who has constructed the rockery from the debris thrown into her garden.

However, pensioner Madeline, who doesn't believe the wall will come down in her lifetime, insists: "If I ever leave the area, it'll be in a box."

The Wall will be shown on BBC Northern Ireland on Monday, 9pm

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