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Belfast peace wall demolished: Breaking down of barriers a brick-by-brick procedure

It was a cheering sight to watch the peace wall on Belfast's Crumlin Road bulldozed yesterday. But what of the other 98 which continue to symbolise the city's sectarian geography? Henry McDonald reports.

Published 26/02/2016

Demolition begins on the peace wall on the Crumlin Road at the junction with Ardoyne
Demolition begins on the peace wall on the Crumlin Road at the junction with Ardoyne
Cluan Place in east Belfast
Alexandra Park in north Belfast
The Berlin Wall comes down

Judging by the demeanour of the residents on Belfast's Crumlin Road yesterday and the way they appeared so relaxed while their smartphones snapped the demolition job, it seems communities on either side of one of the city's so-called peace walls were happy to see theirs being torn down.

It certainly was a cheering sight to see the bulldozer smash through at least one of the walls that have separated Ardoyne and Woodvale since the 1970s.

Yet, it is worth remembering that this barrier is one only out of 98 others which remain in place across Belfast - the vast majority of them concentrated in the north and west of the city.

They include an almost permanent barrier that snakes across Alexandra Park in north Belfast, whose construction began on September 1, 1994. The birth-date of that wall was - and remains - highly significant, given that the foundations for the giant structure, that created two separate green spaces in what was once one park, were laid on the first day of the IRA ceasefire.

Because, even as the world's media was filming scenes of joyous republicans hanging out of black taxis waving tricolours (and, later, loyalists marching into Belfast city centre to try and assuage working-class, pro-Union fears that the IRA cessation meant a sellout of unionism), the abnormality continued.

Sectarian divisions would long outlast the paramilitary campaigns, which had, of course, only deepened the chasms between communities living along the fault-lines. This was the central message transmitted from the drilling and digging inside Alexandra Park 24 hours into that ceasefire.

Indeed, it is a supreme irony of the peace process that the number of permanent barriers or walls more than doubled between 1994 and the present day.

The ceasefire's breakdown, Drumcree and its toxic ripple effects, the parades disputes sparking up in Belfast, compounded with decades of fear and mistrust on either side of the line, saw an expansion of the structures.

Fences even got higher in Londonderry around the small Protestant enclave of The Fountain, which hugs up beside the ancient walls, as attacks also increased on this community and vice-versa.

On a recent trip across east Belfast this writer took a short drive into the siege-within-a-siege that is Cluan Place, the tiny Protestant enclave walled off from the nearby nationalist Short Strand, several of whose own streets end abruptly at reinforced steel and concrete barriers protecting it, in its turn, from the larger loyalist redoubts up the Newtownards Road.

Judging by the palpable fear you detect - even in a tiny area like Cluan Place - it is hard to see any clamour on this side of the Lagan for "their" wall, or the Short Strand's wall, being torn down in the next few years.

In recent years there have been efforts to de-escalate tension around some of these structures and even, in the case of the 'peaceline in the park', to open the gates of the barrier during daytime to let people pass to and fro on either side.

Just like the experiment up on the Crumlin Road, these are laudable initiatives which should be replicated across other parts of Northern Ireland and especially in Belfast, but only with the consent of those living there.

There have been contradictory signals sent out by those actually living by the walls and barriers about these structures and what they say about our society.

Almost four years ago a comprehensive University of Ulster survey uncovered a duality in the way people perceived these walls. So, for example, 82% of the 1,451 people surveyed regarded them as "ugly", while - crucially - 78% said they wanted them to come down.

However, 69% of this same - very large - sample of those whose homes are near the barriers believed they were a necessary evil to prevent violence on the interfaces. And only 38% believed they would see them falling in their own lifetimes.

Moreover, 38% of these residents also believed that the walls were a tourist attraction (if you want to amuse yourself of an afternoon, go up to the Cupar Street barrier - the one that most resembles the old Berlin Wall - and read the hippie-like messages foreign tourists have scrawled on it, which are touching, deeply sincere and, sadly, profoundly naive).

You wouldn't get decent odds for betting that a similar survey taken today along the interfaces of Belfast and Derry would produce roughly the same findings. The fear factor remains - especially during certain times of the year, namely the marching season, when tensions flare up.

So, it would be a mistake to portray the bulldozer smashing through the Crumlin Road peace wall as a kind of Berlin Wall moment; as our November 1989.

You only have to stroll up Ardoyne Road and take a sharp right turn down Alliance Avenue to see a number of permanent barriers still separating republican and loyalist communities.

It would also be facile to draw too many comparisons between "our" walls and other barriers across the planet. The parallel between Belfast's 98 walls/barriers and the one cutting parts of Israel off from Palestine is false. Only one side of that divide is in favour of the wall, namely the Israelis, who see it as a necessary barrier to prevent suicide bombing attacks. Whereas Palestinians see it as a means of grabbing more land.

No doubt if Donald Trump gets elected to the White House and his madcap plan to build a wall cutting off Mexico from the United States ever becomes a reality, some - though not all - on the US side would welcome its construction. Mexicans, of course, would hate it.

Walls, barriers and reinforced physical borders are actually going up all over the world. Eastern European countries are threatening to create a 21st century version of the Iron Curtain to stop developing world migrants (both those fleeing civil war and persecution and economic refugees) from getting into their countries.

In Baghdad the Iraqi authorities, after the invasion, erected walls modelled on the Belfast experience to keep apart rival Sunni and Shia communities hell-bent on slaughtering each other.

In these uncertain, dangerous times, we are living in a walled world, sadly. And we in Northern Ireland are living proof of how long it can take to deconstruct these monuments to social and political failure.

One wall down and one gate temporarily open. It's a start. Now Belfast just has 98 to go.

Belfast Telegraph

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