Belfast Telegraph

Contested space is the final frontier of division

Peace walls may be associated with Belfast, but segregation is a province-wide problem, says Michael Hughes

For many people, the term 'interfaces' or 'contested spaces' immediately conjures up an image of hard concrete walls or high fences euphemistically known as the 'peace walls'. It is an image largely associated with Belfast.

The legacy of our past may perhaps be more evident in Belfast and other urban areas through the physical features of interfaces, but the impact of contested space in areas beyond Belfast is no less detrimental on communities.

In towns, villages and rural communities outside Belfast, and in border areas, the physical legacy of segregation and division takes a different form, as a new report suggests.

Beyond Belfast, which was commissioned by the Community Relations Council and the Rural Community Network, has highlighted how contested space and segregation is maintained and extended through forms of behaviour that range from low-scale acts of avoidance to serious acts of violence.

At one extreme, the large urban centres, such as Derry/ Londonderry, Lurgan and Porta-down, have much in common with Belfast, with heavily segregated social housing estates.

However, at the other extreme are the numerous small villages and rural communities which display few of the visible trappings of sectarian division, but in which an individual's behaviour, movement and sense of safety may be dominated by knowledge of such things as ownership of land and patterns of residence.

Such contested space is also evident in border areas, which at one level divides north from south, but which also includes diverse pockets of minority communities.

The report affirms that barriers do exist in many rural communities. These may not be physical or visible barriers, but they are barriers nonetheless, and they have real effects in constraining and shaping the behaviour and attitudes of both individuals and communities, affecting the area's sustainability as people choose to shop, worship, socialise, recreate and access services in other areas.

Contested spaces may emerge or be created in situations where members of different communities live segregated lives, have weak inter-community relationships and where persistent tensions occur.

A divided village may work out its tensions in the centre rather than in the segregated residential areas.

Inter-community tensions can emerge as sectarian attacks on people and symbolic property such as memorials, churches, schools and GAA and Orange halls, rows over parades and use of flags.

For many communities living in rural, border and urban areas beyond Belfast there is a realisation that a piecemeal approach to addressing these issues has been the norm. There is a need for something more strategic, which is centrally located within a strong and meaningful Cohesion, Sharing and Integration programme.

All departments in the Executive impact on these areas and need to acknowledge the problem, issues, hopes and aspirations of these communities and work with them.

At the local level, district councils have an important role to play.

The continued cost to our society of cyclical conflict because we can't or won't share cannot continue to be sustained if we are serious about creating vibrant urban and rural communities for all.

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