Belfast Telegraph

Removal of Northern Ireland barriers still a distant hope

Editor's Viewpoint

It is an astonishing fact that no one under the age of 50 can remember Belfast without a peace wall. The first barriers began going up in 1969 as inter-community violence erupted and they have been steadily built on ever since.

A Stormont report in the early 1970s optimistically concluded that those barriers would not be difficult to dismantle once violence ended, but the author could not have foreseen the irony of that statement. On September 1, 1994, the day after the IRA announced its ceasefire, the foundations of a new barrier at Alexandra Park in north Belfast were laid.

In all there are some 100 peace walls in Northern Ireland, most in Belfast but also in Londonderry and a couple of provincial towns. In other cities around the world such divisions between communities are seen as abnormal, but here they have gained such permanence that they are regarded as normal.

In one area between the Short Strand and the Lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast an oral history project will begin later this year recalling people's memories of life before the walls, the impact of the barriers on their lives and what it is like to live on an interface.

Those with long memories can recall a time when it was possible for people living on the Falls Road to walk across to the Shankill Road, then a burgeoning shopping area.

Now those communities, like so many other in the city, are divided by brick walls or corrugated fences.

The power-sharing Executive before its collapse set a date of 2023 for the removal of all the barriers in the city, but that seems as wildly optimistic as that civil servant in the 1970s.

There are a significant number of projects funded by EU peace funds working towards that end, but each one will testify that gaining community agreement for even alterations to the walls and fences is a tortuous process.

It involves gaining the trust of each community and building that trust up between those living on either side of the barriers. It takes very few dissenting voices to veto any change.

People who live in the shadow of the barriers remember why they were erected and how they felt safer afterwards. There is almost a feeling of why tempt fate by removing them.

Ideally it would be great to remove all the barriers, but that means first removing the divisions etched in minds.

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