If we open our minds the walls will come tumbling down
Published 26/01/2012 | 08:00
Robert Frost, in his folksy way, wondered whether there was "something" out there that did not like a wall. In Belfast, they love their walls, especially peace walls, to the extent it seems, of wanting them kept up forever.
Many outsiders may be surprised at the news that the International Fund for Ireland should have committed £2m to projects designed to lead to the removal of peace walls in Belfast.
That such an enterprise is necessary will be disappointing to those optimists who thought peace should have broken out when the governments ordained it to be so. Others will be disappointed to learn that, far from crumbling or being demolished, such walls have trebled in number in the interval and extend to a cumulative 21 miles in Belfast.
Before rushing to judgment, we might ask how far this is different from the gated communities and estates which increasingly mark the more affluent areas of cities and towns.
Walls built by the rich are an advertisement of power and possessions, those required to assuage the fears in poorer areas, a symbol of impotence and insecurity. Both are indications of a dysfunctional society.
In both cases, the need for a wall is based on fear and mistrust. The walls have become a barrier to peace-making, by cementing difference and division in a society that is trying desperately to get its act together.
They inhibit movements across streets to shops and community facilities and even playgrounds, the sort of everyday activity which helps to integrate a society. They produce, on the one hand, a siege mentality; on the other, the wall and the community behind it become the targets, something to be attacked simply for being there.
Perhaps too often peace walls were built as a political sop, as a quick-fix solution to a local problem without identifying the underlying problem, a classic case of treating the symptoms while leaving the underlying virus of sectarianism to develop.
It is characteristic of the more strategic approach of the International Fund that the immediate object of the current initiative is not so much the removal of brick and concrete as of barriers in people's minds.
They are funding not bulldozers and wrecking balls, but the slow, painstaking task of building networks of trusting and trustworthy individuals and mutual confidence in separated communities that their security is better ensured by good neighbours than by the stronger and higher walls.
It is a serious reflection on political leadership that the Office of First and deputy First Minster has been unable to publish an agreed community relations strategy which would support the work being done on the ground by dedicated community workers and activists on both sides.
Providentially, cutbacks in public services could promote sharing of community facilities on a cross-community basis and the end of expensive duplication.
Falling numbers in inner-city schools and threats of closures present an opportunity to educate young people together, or at least to reduce segregation.