Where do we draw the peace line now?
They have been called Belfast’s walls of shame, but how do the people separated by the barriers really view them? Jamie McDowell finds out
The general consensus that Belfast's major peace line at Cupar Way separates the Falls and the Shankill Road isn't entirely correct.
For a tourist, or a person not familiar with the area, there is sometimes an impression given that the Falls runs down one side of the wall and the Shankill the other.
It does in fact separate two neighbourhoods that branch out from the two main arterial routes in the west of the city, and, over the years, this edifice of wire and concrete has seen its fair share of trauma, pain and suffering.
First erected in the early 1970s, it was the first major wall of its kind in the country. Since then, the number of divides across Belfast City and Northern Ireland has rocketed. They vary both in length and height. Some are just mesh fences that protect a few houses during sporadic bouts of violence. Others are more advanced and sturdy constructs, built to take everything from bricks to mortar rockets.
In Northern Ireland at the moment, there are 47 peace lines erected all together, with 36 of those in Belfast alone. And while the people of Germany celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this year, statistics show that divides in Northern Ireland are growing in both size and number.
From Belfast to Londonderry, the barriers serve as a grim reminder of the problems that still exist within the communities of this country. But when the trouble is over, when the police and the troublemakers and the television crews have gone away, the people who live within the confines of this ‘flashpoint' must go about their everyday business and try to live life as normally as possible under the shadow of the wall.
It's a brisk autumn morning when we visit, and on Cupar Way, or, as it is sometimes casually referred to, ‘the Protestant side', a few black taxi cabs have stopped off to show some passengers what has now become an increasingly popular tourist attraction. This side of the wall is preferred by the tour buses and taxi tours that frequent it on a daily basis as it gives a wider view of the magnitude of the wall. On the the other side, many Catholic houses and businesses back directly on to the wall leaving little room for the buses to manoeuvre.
Recently, a team of graffiti artists hailing from all over Europe visited the wall and sprayed works of their art over the grey concrete that divides the two communities. The pieces of graffiti are perhaps the only ones in this area that don't bear a political message.
This is the focal point of the construction, where the wall is highest, as is tension between Protestants and Catholics.
Violet Walker is a commuter who has just picked her child up from school. She uses the Workman Avenue gate on the Springfield Road to go back and forth from one side to the other on a daily basis. She says: “I think the wall has its good points and its bad points.
One of the worst things about it is that if you need an ambulance or the fire brigade quickly, the emergency services have to go the whole way into the city centre and doubles back before getting to where it needs to go.
“In general, people around here, on both sides of the barrier, are just fed up with it. We’re fed up with the fights that go on and we just want to live normally.”
Violet adds: “The gate is only open until nine o’clock at night so if you want to get across after that you’ll have a long way to go. If there’s trouble in the mornings and the police close the gates then parents who send their children to school on the other side can’t get them across. My kids go to school on the Springfield Road and I actually have family who live there as well.
“When I was a wee girl I remember being taken to the shops here, but they’ve all gone now.
“A lot of the trouble that occurs here involves young people. I don’t think it’s necessarily their fault though. There’s nothing for them to do here. The community centre is closed and I still think that some of the older ones put ideas into the kids’ heads about going out and fighting. The young ones are just probably scared to say no. There hasn’t been much violence recently though. It would be good if there was something for the kids to do.”
The tall green fence that leads down from the Workman Avenue gate is merely that — a fence. Strewn in a hedgerow flanking it, a few items are randomly scattered. A yard brush and some traditional Belfast litter adorn the hedges, but there’s nothing to suggest any recent fracas. The reality of the situation is obvious though by a few paint-spattered houses on the other side of the road. Courtney Vincent lives on Cupar Way with her family. The house she rents with her husband looks directly onto the peace line. “We’ve been living here for four years now,” she says. “It’s a big draw for tourists. Recently, there was a big group of guys from all over Europe who sprayed a lot of graffiti on the wall.
“I’ve also heard that speed bumps are going to be put down on the road that runs alongside the wall. I’m glad about that because cars really fly along here and I worry about my kids when they’re out playing. I’m terrified to let them out because of that.
“We haven’t seen a lot of trouble recently, though there were a few disturbances after the Whiterock Orange parade. You used to hear the odd joyrider at night: that’s all kind of fizzled out now.
“I think the wall is a bad thing because it keeps the two communities apart and separates them. I don’t want my kids growing up like that. It’s a real eyesore and I’ve also heard that they may be planning on extending it. We have a good laugh at all the tourists.
“Last summer, while I was pregnant, I was sitting in my pyjamas and dressing gown in the living room watching tv and I looked to the window to find a big bunch of tourists just peering in at me.”
On the other side of the wall lies Bombay Street. The street was once the scene of one of the most harrowing events that happened in the area.
On August 14, 1969, an intense gun battle broke out between the RUC and the IRA. In the rioting that followed, the residents of Bombay Street were burnt out of their homes by a loyalist mob.
Today, the street backs right up against the wall. Some residents’ gardens are covered in steel cages to protect them from projectiles.
We knock on the door of one female householder who does not wish to be named. She explains: “It is an eyesore, but we don’t want the wall to come down for our own protection. Obviously we’d like it to come down, but we need it. We don’t feel safe without it.
“Stuff gets thrown over quite regularly. It’s normally things like golf balls and a lot of the time it’s after football matches. If Celtic beat Rangers it gets bad.”
Back at the gate on Workman Avenue Maureen Hutchinson is doing the daily school run.
“I’m in and out of the gate every day,” she says. “You just get used to it after a while. It’s mostly the young ones who come out to fight but the wall makes it a bit safer.
“There’s nothing for them here. They stand on either side and taunt each other.
“But at the same time, I think the fact that the wall is here in the first place attracts them to it.”
Apart from the main wall, there are several offshoots in nearby neighbourhoods.
On Beverley Street, a few hundred metres from Cupar Way, a new section of the peace line that already existed here has been erected.
A man who, again does not wish to be named, says: “I’ve lived here for five years now. A large section of this wall has just been extended. There used to be a school where it is now.
“I haven’t seen much trouble recently but it usually gets bad around the July holidays. I think the wall is necessary because it’s mainly pensioners who live around here. I think the trouble that we have will eventually go away but I really don’t know when the wall will come down.”