How long before the walls come tumbling down?
The flag protests show just how unrealistic the Executive's target for removing peace walls is, argues Henry McDonald
Published 29/01/2013 | 08:00
Just 24 hours after the Provisional IRA announced its cessation of violence, the workmen started drilling the holes for the foundations of another 'peace wall' in north Belfast.
It was the morning of September 1, 1994 and the process had just begun to construct a huge barrier that, for the first time, would cut in half one of the public parks that Belfast's Victorian fathers had built for its growing population.
Few of the international media gathered in the city to cover the IRA's historic ceasefire (followed two months later by the Combined Loyalist Military Command's own cessation) noticed what was going on Alexandra Park.
Most of the global news organisations were unaware that, due to communal pressure, people on both sides of what was then an invisible sectarian dividing line had been pressing for months for a peace line.
This would eventually create separate Protestant and Catholic 'green zones' of playground and parkland in this beautiful park, with its view of Belfast's Docklands and the Castlereagh Hills beyond.
At the time of the 1994 ceasefire, it almost felt that pointing out the creation of this latest sectarian separation barrier was like being the skull at the banquet.
Amid the understandable relief and hope of that late summer - euphoria at the ceasefire, even - reminding the world about the structural divisions appeared churlish.
Yet the 'peace line in the park' was to become a potent physical symbol of the dark side of the peace process and its failings on the ground in conflict-stricken areas like north Belfast.
Here people still lost their lives in renewed loyalist violence, firstly turned against the nationalist population and later on its own community in bursts of intra-paramilitary feuding.
So it is significant that, last year, the 'peace line in the park' became the first of the separation barriers to be breached, albeit on a limited basis (a door with a lock that can be opened on either side). It was seen as an example that could lead the way for all the other 'peace lines' and 'peace-walls' coming down. Following on from the minor but symbolic breach in the wall in Alexandra Park, it has been revealed that the Stormont Executive's Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) document envisages that all the walls should come down by 2022.
There are now 59 barriers dividing communities, not only in Belfast but also in Londonderry and Craigavon. The Executive's aim is that these will be dismantled just under a decade.
The report was undoubtedly drafted long before the current toxic dispute over the restrictions on the Union flag flying on Belfast's City Hall.
Therefore, it would be unfair to paint its authors as naive in the extreme in the light of the latest upsurge in sectarian violence. However, the flags dispute underlines just how ambitious the target of 2022 might be.
Take one of the most unstable flashpoints of the ongoing disorder - the Mountpottinger Road/Castlereagh Street sectarian interface in east Belfast.
This corner of the city encapsulates the problems afflicting working-class districts and highlights the Herculean difficulties facing policy-makers aiming to deconstruct the 59 walls/barriers. In this small section of east Belfast, there is one community that perceives itself to be under siege and an even smaller one living in a siege-within-a-siege.
The Short Strand is the only Catholic enclave in east Belfast and its residents have first-hand experience of being under fire from the larger loyalist redoubts around it.
Within that community, there is a collective folk-memory of being surrounded and vulnerable that predates the Troubles.
There is, for example, a stained-glass window in the heavily fortified St Matthew's church on the lower Newtownards Road that commemorates two local men who died in 20th century conflicts.
Both men are recent ancestors of the present writer - great uncle Hugh and grandfather Henry McDonald. Hugh died in the 1920s, a victim of a sectarian attack near the Short Strand in the civil war-blighted years that saw the birth of two states on this island.
Every family in that enclave has similar stories to tell of loved-ones, or neighbours, or friends, whose lives were blighted by sectarian violence.
On the other side of the line, in a tiny enclave known as Cluan Place, there is a small Protestant community, which equally sees itself under siege from the nearby Short Strand.
It is huddled up against a separation wall which provides some assurance and security to residents, who see their 'wall' as vital for protection as the one Short Strand people rely on that cuts across Bryson Street.
Some of the mainly young, masked, angry foot-soldiers on the loyalist side of the line - and some of those who have responded with violence from the Short Strand - were barely out of primary school, some not even born, when the 1994 ceasefires were declared. Yet many of their mindsets are programmed to pre-1994; to the years of daily conflict and seemingly endless division.
The end of walls like the ones in Bryson Street, or Cluan Place, cannot begin with physical deconstruction.
If you continue to educate separately the post-ceasefire, post-Good Friday Agreement generation; if you allow disputes over symbols to toxify the social and political atmosphere and if, critically, politicians exploit structural divisions to shore up their own tribal vote then, sadly, the 2022 target appears positively utopian.