Peace walls are a daily reminder of our failure to consign division to history books where it belongs
We should listen to the former Belgian PM's timely warning about sectarianism, writes Alban Maginness
The fences are 12 metres high and this is the 21st century," exclaimed Guy Verhofstadt MEP after seeing the peace walls in Belfast. He was Belgian Prime Minister from 1999 to 2008 and is now the Brexit co-ordinator for the European Parliament. In his recent address to the European Parliament, he talked animatedly about his visit last week to Belfast and his shock at seeing the city's peace walls still in place almost two decades after the Good Friday Agreement. His message is timely - and one that we all should listen to.
Unfortunately, because we are so inured to the peace walls, we don't share his sense of shock. That is because we have become desensitised or, maybe worse, indifferent to the massive failure of this society to fundamentally address the issue of sectarian division.
But we should all, in fact, be shocked and angered at the scandalous presence of the peace walls.
It is not right that, after 20 years of the peace process, the walls remain standing, casting a serious blight on our city and our politics.
The walls are, in fact, not that important in a functional, or even security, sense, but they are emblematic of our failure to build a genuine peace and to achieve reconciliation between our two communities.
The DUP and Sinn Fein flourish on these emblems of division and the fear they instil. They have a vested interest in preserving these relics of sectarian strife and the implied threat of a future breakdown.
Divisive republican and unionist politicians jointly feed their electorates on a diet of sectarian fear. This symbiotic relationship upon which they thrive is mutually advantageous but destructive of good politics.
As Verhofstadt alarmingly says: "The problems are not over and, despite the peace, tensions still remain."
His message to the European Parliament was that the Good Friday Agreement must be protected and formally attached to any final Brexit deal.
Significantly, he referred to the situation here as "a frozen conflict". This is a term used by political scientists where conflict has not been resolved, but rather only the violent symptoms have been dealt with and the root causes have not been addressed, as, for example, in Cyprus.
His use of that term was deliberate and a challenge to all of us who have for too long deluded ourselves and indulged in the pretence that we have made progress towards reconciliation when, in fact, we haven't even begun to seriously tackle the underlying problem of sectarianism.
Cantrell Close loudly proclaims this endemic problem.
Verhofstadt, during his report to the European Parliament, urged the European Union not to open the next phase of discussions on Brexit until a major breakthrough happened in the negotiations.
More importantly for us, in relation to the Irish border (which is a major priority for the EU), he said Theresa May's position that she did not want infrastructure on the Irish border presumes that the UK will have to stay in the internal market and customs union.
Alternatively, if that was not the case, then Northern Ireland itself would have to stay in some form of internal market and customs union.
Ideally, if the UK stayed in the internal market and customs union, there would be little problem with the border in Ireland.
However, the Tory Government is against remaining in either institution, therefore Northern Ireland must find some form of internal market to remain in as a distinct region.
Diane Dodds MEP wrongly sees this as the creation of an international border between Northern Ireland and Britain.
It is no such thing, but rather a pragmatic European solution to a difficult problem created by Brexit.
It is time that the DUP and other unionist parties started to think imaginatively outside the box, so that this issue can be practically resolved.
It is insufficient for them to respond with knee-jerk reactions.
Flexibility is demanded to address the problematic issue of the border. Simply backing the UK Government's position is not good enough.
At the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, the European Parliament will be asked to approve the deal and, therefore, some attempt must be made for once by unionist politicians to compromise and get the best possible practical deal for this region.
Given the intransigent position of the British Government, the only realistic way forward is, as Verhofstadt has suggested, that this region remains within some form of the internal market.
Unionists, by agreeing to this compromise, will not lose their birthright. Politics is the art of the possible, not the art of stonewalling.
The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly by 557 votes to accept Verhofstadt's position, and we all need to be keenly aware of that strength of feeling.
Therefore, listen carefully to the wise words of Guy Verhofstadt.