Vow to remove 'peacelines' by 2023
Walls keeping apart Protestant and Catholic communities in parts of Northern Ireland are to come down within the next 10 years, ministers have pledged.
Almost 60 so-called peace lines, the overwhelming majority in Belfast, are to be dismantled as part of a new political initiative to ease sectarian tensions.
Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness revealed their strategy at Stormont as police confirmed plans to hold private talks in Cardiff next week involving politicians and community representatives on all sides.
The move follows serious violence in Belfast over Christmas and the New Year after the City Council decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag and amid heightened concerns of further civil unrest linked to disputed parades in flashpoint Catholic and Protestant interfaces.
Mr Robinson said: "This is probably the most ambitious set of proposals that have ever been brought forward in terms of a shared future. I believe it really will take us into a new era in terms of how we move forward as a united society."
The peace lines are a mixture of traditional walls, fences and gates. They have been built in areas of sectarian tension in Belfast, Londonderry and Portadown, as well as through the playground of a primary school in North Belfast.
Some tower up to 18ft high and may be miles long through areas of dense housing. They were intended to be temporary and protect people from violence during the 30-year conflict but remain 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles.
Local communities are to be encouraged to produce a phased plan on how to remove the barriers but Mr Robinson promised the bulldozers would not be moving in immediately. The ministers also announced the setting up of an all party working group with an independent chairman to discuss flags, parades and how to deal with Northern Ireland's past.
Mr Robinson said: "What we are attempting to do is tackle the blight of sectarianism and racism and other forms of intolerance that we believe is essential in shaping a shared and coherent society that can move forward and collectively face the challenges of a changing world."
Mr McGuinness said: "This is a decisive step change where we can move forward with a comprehensive programme bringing communities together in an inclusive and integrated way. We are not prepared to sit back and be paralysed, we are prepared to continue to move forward."