Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Flashpoint talks bring down the peace walls

Six symbols of division removed ...and more to go

The gate that separates residents on either side of Alexandra Park in north Belfast
The security gates at Bishops Gate which overlook the Fountain Estate in Derry
The security gates at Bishops Gate which overlook the Fountain Estate in Derry
Houses at the former peace wall on the Oldpark Road

Six peace walls have been removed in the last two years thanks to behind-the-scenes negotiations - and more are to come down, it can be revealed.

Some of the most notorious walls and gates in Belfast are also set to be transformed from military fortresses to less conspicuous structures.

Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph, Justice Minister David Ford revealed that as well as four gates within the walls of Derry, two structures have also been removed in north Belfast.

One of these is at Torrens Avenue, a street that was infamous during the Troubles, while the other was at Brucevale Avenue near Duncairn Gardens.

There are also negotiations under way at many of the other 53 structures across Northern Ireland with a view to removing more in the coming months and years.

Mr Ford was tight-lipped about exactly which locations will be next, saying it is a sensitive issue and negotiations are still to be finalised.

The latest move on peace walls follows the opening of the gates in Alexandra Park in 2011. Mr Ford put the progress down to positive engagement within communities.

"There are six fewer than when I became minister," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "Those six that are no longer there are all fairly minor ones, much more significant is the level of engagements and the changes we have made around some of the other gates.

"The important thing is that where we have had engagement such as Alexandra Park the gate is now open a reasonable number of hours."

Mr Ford also revealed that some gates are now seeing longer opening hours on request by the local community, and one west Belfast flashpoint made infamous by the Whiterock parade is set to be transformed from a huge iron military gate to something less conspicuous later this year.

"We have had improvements in a number of other places where there are longer opening hours of gates and even somewhere like Workman Avenue which was fairly contentious," he said. "Now we have a new gate going up, from something fairly awful to much less of a structure. It's still a gate but it is more open. Neighbours will be able to see each other through it.

"Good engagement has happened around that area, that's the key issue. The work which my officials have been doing with support from the International Fund for Ireland, Groundwork and the City Council has all been about creating a better atmosphere."

Work is ongoing at a number of the other remaining peace walls that the Department of Justice own, although Mr Ford said there was less progress being made in Portadown and east Belfast.

The Justice Minister said there is a lack of funding for the work which also includes installing better lighting and CCTV at flashpoints.

"At a few points we have put in CCTV and increased lighting so we can get the gate opened longer. There have been requests to leave certain gates open longer for special events and most of those have been facilitated," he said.

"But the difficulty is that we don't have the funds to do all that is needed. We have paid for more than is purely our responsibility to enhance some of those community safety aspects around interfaces and support the work local people are doing, but we don't have the funds that we need to do that."

Mr Ford said for him it is about increasing community confidence.

"Opening up gates and extending opening hours, these are the kind of things where progress is easier. It's all about building up confidence generally. The effort is not at the point where we are driving bulldozers down streets removing structures. "It's just unfortunate that the current nature of relationships in both east Belfast and Portadown means that we haven't made progress."

Background

The walls started going up in 1969 to separate the two warring communities and were only meant to be a temporarily measure, however some have stood for over 40 years.

The biggest walls today remain between the Falls Road and Shankill Road, the Short Strand and Cluan Place and between the Fountain estate and Bishop Street area of Derry.

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