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It’s a tall order, but the walls must come down

North Belfast is still living with its past — still living behind its peace walls. In this place where the two communities live cheek-by-jowl, hundreds of killings during a decades-long conflict have left a permanent scar.

And, so, those peace walls will not easily be dismantled. Each and every brick will have to be carefully removed, and over a long period of time.

“There’s a great emphasis on the walls coming down,” Gerard O’Reilly, a community worker from the nationalist New Lodge area told this newspaper.

“Those people who are speaking about it need to go to the ground level and speak to the people who actually live behind those walls.

“It cannot be done from on high with regards to Government stating that those walls will have to be down by the year whatever.”

The story of this part of the city is not just about the physical walls and defences — it is about the people who lived through the worst of the wars on these fear-filled streets.

They have to be convinced that it is safe to bring the walls down, realistic to believe that two communities — so divided for so long — can live door-to-door.

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And, more than anything else, people need to be assured that the conflict is really over.

It is about the walls in people’s minds as well as the physical walls that separate communities. “And how do we break that down?” Gerard O’Reilly asks.

That work has begun in a process of small, but significant, steps.

The recent news from north Belfast has been dominated by stories of confrontation: that violence in Ardoyne in the Twelfth period when parade and protest meant street violence.

But this is only part of the story.

When I spoke to Gerard O’Reilly he was in a room where he sat with the UDA ‘brigadier’ John Bunting, PSNI Chief Superintendent Mark Hamilton, Fr Tim Bartlett and John Howcroft, who works with a conflict transformation initiative in the north of the city.

He spoke of work that has created the “enabling environment” in which the two communities have started to step into each other’s space.

“It’s easy for us to meet each other across the interfaces, community workers, but it’s getting people to meet each other in a safe environment where they feel comfortable doing so, and it doesn’t challenge their sense of loyalty, and their sense of identity and all those aspects that come into it,” John Howcroft said.

“And we have created an environment where we are promoting different events.”

One example was a cross-community Christmas event involving several hundred local people.

“It was non-threatening and people had a fantastic time,” he said.

Another initiative on the loyalist side was removing a bonfire from an interface.

“It wasn’t just simply keeping the other community happy,” John Howcroft said. “It was about our young people not getting drawn into anti-social behaviour and sectarianism.”

Yes, it had a knock-on benefit for the New Lodge community, but it also had a massive impact on the loyalist side.

“Young people are not getting involved in anti-social behaviour/sectarianism on that interface,” Howcroft said. “They’re not getting a criminal record.

“They’re not going to be excluded from employment down the line. They’re not going to face travel restrictions. So, that’s positive.”

The work that is going on is about trying to see beyond the walls — looking into the other community, what is often decribed as the other side.

“There were so many similarities,” Gerard O’Reilly said. “The empty plate in Tigers Bay is the same as the empty plate on the New Lodge Road and that is where we actually move from.”

In the developing peace, this is part of the quiet work that is happening; the steps that are being taken out of the past and into the present.

It cannot be rushed, but this is a process in which many benefit.

“Policing solutions don’t fix community problems,” PSNI Chief Superintendent Mark Hamilton explained.

“But community solutions can fix policing problems.”

What is happening in parts of north Belfast is a process that is beginning to make a difference.

It is about moving beyond “them and us” — that thinking that has been part of the story for so long in this province — and it is about trying to write a different script.

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