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Berlin celebrates but Northern Ireland has more barriers than ever

By Claire McNeilly

The irony was obvious and palpable — and it hung heavily in the air on a chilly November night. There may still be divisions in this country, but last night a group of local children bridged theirs to help mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Over 60 young Catholics and Protestants from flashpoint areas gathered at the gates of a west Belfast peaceline to beat the drum – and other instruments — for peace.

Fittingly, and symbolically, the musical workshop was held in the shadow of the city’s largest barrier which runs between Northumberland Street and Lanark Way and divides the Catholic Falls from the Protestant Shankill.

With its greyness and graffiti, the wall bears more than a passing resemblance to its infamous, feared and now felled German counterpart.

But most of the kids who participated in last night’s event weren’t even born when the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989 after more than a quarter of a century.

To them it’s a mere figment of history, not something you know but something you might Google out of curiosity.

In Belfast, however, there are 80 or so permanent barriers dividing loyalist and nationalist areas — a present-day, tangible, concrete reality and a depressing symbol of the conflict that has blighted our history, especially over the last four decades. It would be perfectly understandable if those young people of divided Belfast asked this communal question: if the world’s two superpowers can come together to end the necessity for physical division, then why can’t specific communities in parts of Northern Ireland?

Niamh McEvoy (15), from St Genevieve’s High School, said it was important for ‘the two sides’ to get together.

“Twenty years on I think it brings great inspiration to others across the world to show that people can survive past conflict and bring down barriers, literally or figuratively, and bring equality into everyone’s lives,” Niamh said.

“Northern Ireland is one of the communities in history that has really severe violence, and I think us Belfast people need to look for balance and take a step back and bring equality to prejudice.”

Her friend Tania Devlin, also aged 15, agreed that it was time to move forward.

“All the violence is over now, and we just want to get past it and everybody is really wanting it to happen,” she said.

Paradoxically, the number of so-called peace walls separating communities in Greater Belfast has trebled since the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, according to a report by the Community Relations Council (CRC).

In 1994 there were 26. Now there are 80.

Event organiser and community relations manager for Youthlink, John Peacock, said last night’s event formed part of the Up Against The Wall project.

“Over the last six months we’ve been giving young people a voice about what they think about peace walls in their area and to allow them to have a conversation about the future of peace walls,” he said.

“So, on the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, we wanted to highlight how sad it is that there are still walls going up here in Belfast.”

Today those walls will once again be silent and deserted — save for a smattering of curious tourists wondering why, in a modern European city in 2009, there are people who still feel the need for physical separation.

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