Infamous peace line that cut public park in two opens after 17 years
For almost two decades it has stood as a grim reminder of the hatred and suspicion which once divided a city.
But yesterday two communities took a step towards a new, shared future with the opening of a gate along a peace line that cuts through a north Belfast beauty spot.
A three-metre high wall has divided Alexandra Park since August 1994, physically separating the nationalist Newington community from those living in the neighbouring loyalist stronghold of Tigers Bay.
Children from two local primary schools, Holy Family and Currie, watched as Justice Minister David Ford officially opened the gate, finally bringing the two communities together.
Among them was Aaron Amos, a pupil at Holy Family, who said he was excited at playing in a bigger, shared park.
“I’m looking forward to playing with other children and making new friends,” he said. “I hope there is no more trouble in the park and that children can just play together in peace.”
Like all the other children attending yesterday’s opening, Aaron is too young to remember the park without a barrier.
Now, however, the gate unlocks a whole new world for the pupils of Holy Family and Currie primaries.
Dinah MacManus, the principal of Holy Family, said she hoped it would strengthen friendships between the schools.
“We work together very, very closely and this is a great opportunity for us to use a bigger, shared space and for the children to come together,” she said.
“Hopefully, then, the friendships which have already been formed will now continue after school in this beautiful park.” Ashleigh Galway, who is acting principal of Currie Primary, added: “Both our schools are already working together, but this means we can take that work further and children can continue their friendship outside of school hours.”
The Alexandra Park wall was installed on the first day of the 1994 IRA ceasefire to ease tensions across the interface, but soon became an ugly landmark.
It is the only park in Western Europe that is divided by a barrier.
However, the new gate linking both sections will be open from 9am to 3pm on weekdays for a three-month period.
If successful, it will eventually be opened on a permanent basis.
Sam Cochrane, from the North Belfast Community Development and Transition Group, said it was a big step towards building community relations.
“We are delighted to see the peace gate open in the park and this will hopefully represent a new era for both communities who live and work in the surrounding areas,” he said.
Steven Corr from Belfast City Council’s parks and leisure committee, which pumped £160,000 into the project, said it was an investment which would benefit the community for years to come.
Mr Ford, who performed the opening ceremony, said it challenged the belief that peace walls must be a permanent feature.
“This is happening because local people want it to happen,” he said.
“We spend so much time using the euphemism ‘peace wall’, but these divide and have nothing to do with peace and all to do with stopping violence.
“Opening the gate is what builds peace. Getting children mixing with each other is what a shared future is all about.”
The first interface barriers were built in the early 1970s, following the outbreak of serious violence. They were put up as temporary structures, but have become more permanent, dividing many parts of Belfast. The wall which slices through Alexandra Park was built in August 1994, and saw it become the first public park in Western Europe to be divided. Currently there are 49 peace walls in Belfast.