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Physical walls are coming down in Northern Ireland - now dismantle the walls in children's minds

The barrier in Ardoyne has been removed but the real game-changer will be when our young people go to school together

By Henry McDonald

Published 15/08/2016

Progress: The peace wall which ran along part of the Crumlin Road in north Belfast has been replaced
Progress: The peace wall which ran along part of the Crumlin Road in north Belfast has been replaced
The peace wall comes down

Despite some dire warnings that the Brexit vote would somehow inject additional poison into the Ulster marching season, thus creating more sectarian disorder across the usual faultlines, it has mercifully turned out to be a relatively peaceful summer. While dissident republicans continue to try to murder and maim, the general picture across Northern Ireland, but particularly in Belfast, is a benign one compared to previous years.

The July 12 stand-off between Orangemen banned from returning home to Ligoniel and Ballysillan and Ardoyne nationalists was the quietest in recent memory. The Twaddell protest camp has been disbanded amid rumours of a fresh deal between local Orange lodges and at least one nationalist residents' group.

Even the Anti-Internment League march last Sunday, which was banned from Belfast city centre, ended at police lines at Barrack Street without a stone being thrown.

There have been disgraceful individual acts of vandalism and intimidation, such as the targeting of Orange halls, and, of course, the squalid intra-loyalist feuding in Carrickfergus, to which the equally squalid murder of John Boreland last weekend was surely connected.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland - unionist, nationalist, or neither - are breathing a collective sigh of relief that the summer of 2016, while a weather washout, contained many rays of hope in terms of improving community relations.

And, as if to underpin this cautious optimism, the people of the upper Crumlin Road, most notably Ardoyne residents, who used to live behind a protective, separation wall that stood for 30 years, celebrated the barrier's demise last week.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness got into the spirit of things by playing football with local kids on green space directly facing on to the Crumlin Road, on the spot where the wall came down last February.

McGuinness - quite rightly - described the demolition of the 8ft-foot wall as a sign of progress. In its place, the Housing Executive has created a landscaped pathway, trees and railings, instead of the monstrosity known by that glorious misnomer "peace wall".

The end of the wall on the Crumlin Road follows an earlier initiative to open the gates of the huge barrier that, since September 1, 1994, has bisected Alexandra Park into separate Catholic and Protestant zones.

Both moves are to be welcomed as small, but significant signposts that maybe, just maybe, one-time warring communities in that part of Belfast, which was the most dangerous to live and work during the Troubles, can actually co-exist. There are, of course, at least 30 more, similar-type barriers, some larger, some even resembling the old Berlin Wall in structure (minus the watchtowers), which are still standing as monuments to this society's failure. They still represent entrenched sectarian divisions and are symbols of the historic fears of those huddled behind them.

Unlike the Berlin Wall, which was almost universally loathed on both sides of the Cold War divide, or the separation barrier between Israel and Palestine (hated by Palestinians, regarded by most Israelis as a necessary protection from suicide bombings), the walls of Belfast have been welcomed as a necessary evil by those on both sides.

Fear of being shot dead, or having your home smashed up, often in the dead of night, created a mutual demand for protective walls, barricades and barriers that have become a permanent fixture of life in north, west and parts of east Belfast. It is hard to see the residents of, say, Short Strand's Bryson Street agreeing anytime soon to the wall being knocked down that separates that nationalist enclave from the larger loyalist Newtownards Road.

The lesson, therefore, of the now-defunct wall on the Crumlin Road, or the partially opened barrier cutting across a park in north Belfast, is that progress can probably only be made in baby steps. Time, patience, tolerance and constant community consultation are the key factors in any long-term programme by the Northern Ireland Executive, the Housing Executive and other concerned parties to dismantle the entire infrastructure of physical division.

Moreover, why should this programme stop with walls and barriers? Shouldn't the divided education system be subjected to the same incremental reform and change?

This would not entail a kind of superimposed crash course of involuntary integration, but rather continue, as it has already begun in certain places, with state and Catholic schools sharing physical spaces, playing fields, drama facilities and even, in some cases, joint teams, or joint classes.

Some historians, who take the long view of history, have argued that the crumbling of the Berlin Wall was not an overnight sensational event. Yes, it was the mixed, confused message of an East German government information officer about border crossing points being open now that brought people to frontier checkpoints and, denied entry into West Berlin, precipitated the fall of the wall.

Yet longer-term observers of post-war Germany believe a policy of openness, dialogue and calm diplomacy, set off by the visionary Chancellor, Willy Brandt, in the early-1970s, helped create the wider conditions for the wall to be unsustainable.

Brandt's "Ostpolitik" - his recognition of the East German state in return for great West German indirect influence on the lives of the communist country's citizens - were long-term crucial factors in ending post-war divisions in Europe.

It took Brandt's vision of a united, peaceful, democratic Germany 20 years to come into being. He did it not through sabre-rattling, or via hare-brained, instant solutions.

"Ostpolitik" took time, but in the end won through. And time is exactly what the people living alongside the last walls of Europe need in 21st-century Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph

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