Changing attitudes over Belfast peace walls threatened by Stormont deadlock
The deadlock at Stormont is holding up moves to tear down peace walls dividing communities in Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.
People who have taken significant steps to make progress are now being left in the lurch by politicians, according to Adrian Johnston, who heads the International Fund for Ireland (IFI).
Two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, more than 100 peace walls are still in place - most of them in Belfast.
Five years ago a strategy, Together: Building a United Community (TBUC), was launched by what is now the Executive Office aimed at having the barriers removed by 2023.
But halfway towards that target date, the vast majority are still in place, leaving the IFI and the groups involved in the Peace Walls Programme deeply frustrated at the lack of progress.
Of the 109 peace walls across Northern Ireland, 51 are owned by the Department of Justice, with 20 owned by the Housing Executive. The rest are either privately owned or in the hands of various public agencies.
Only four have been removed, including a wall that was on the Crumlin Road, which was owned by the Housing Executive, and which was demolished following agreement between communities in 2016.
The others removed include a security wall on Springhill Avenue, an unused fence close to the interface at Cliftonpark Avenue and a road barrier on Newington Street. Alterations have also been made to some structures, including the four sets of security gates on Londonderry's walls and a road barrier at Brucevale Park in north Belfast, as well as other reimaging projects.
The IFI, which promotes cross-community dialogue and reconciliation throughout Ireland, has been working with communities to support them in talks around removing peace walls, and has invested some £5m to that end.
It was directly involved with progress in the barriers that have been removed.
Speaking on the fifth anniversary of the strategy, Mr Johnston said agreement has been reached to transform other peace barriers, including several in Londonderry. But he said they are being held back because the TBUC strategy did not include a road map and no ministers have been at Stormont for 16 months.
Mr Johnston said they are at the stage where communities are ready to move, but can't.
"We have been working with communities for five to six years to build up confidence, that change had occurred in some communities and that slow change has now got to some level of fruition," he said.
"Five years ago we had the TBUC strategy, over that five years we have built those communities to the point of change, but we now don't have a multi-agency delivery plan or a budget or a direction for communities to see how they can deliver on that plan.
"That's a big component on why things have been so slow, and certainly politics over the last 18 months has slowed things even more.
"That was evident in the judicial ruling last week.
"The civil service are now at a limbo moment of whether they can address some of these areas.
"But I don't think that should mask the issue that under TBUC a roadmap was never developed.
"While the current ruling will be difficult, it doesn't mask the issue that was already there before that."
The lack of decision-making at Stormont came under the spotlight last week after a High Court judge ruled that a senior civil servant's decision to allow planning permission for a controversial incinerator was unlawful.
Mrs Justice Keegan, in a judicial review ruling, said despite the absence of a working Assembly and Minister the decision on the facility near Mallusk, Co Antrim, should still be made by a minister and not civil servants.
IFI surveys of people who live beside peace walls have found that 68% are in favour of the barriers being removed within the lifetime of their children or grandchildren, while 66% agree that no change to the barriers would have a negative impact on community relations.
On average, a majority in both communities want to see the barriers removed within the next generation - 62% of the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community and 73% of the Catholic/nationalist/republican community.
But 54% across the board still feel that the key functions of the peace walls are related to safety or security functions.
Mr Johnston added: "The attitudes have changed to the point that families now realise there is a broader regeneration issue to this, it's not just about the wall.
"The attitudinal survey results we got were, for us, hugely successful in that attitudes have changed.
"On the flipside of that, the majority of those at the peace walls believe the function is still for security purposes, so we need that to be addressed. If we are going to remove or reduce or reimage a wall, there needs to be an aftercare package in place, there needs to be support in place to mitigate that fear within communities to allow them to progress to the next level."