Attitudes to peace walls
By Claire WHELAN and Chlöe O’MALLEY for Shared Future News
31 January 2013
“Since the first paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, the Northern Ireland peace and political processes have addressed a series of sensitive and contentious issues relating to the conflict such as policing, prisoner releases, decommissioning and power sharing. While the peace process has also, in part, began to address issues of segregation and division within Northern Ireland, it has not yet sufficiently addressed the most obvious and physical manifestation of this division — the peace walls.” (Attitudes to Peace Walls Research Report, p.4.)
Dr Jonny Byrne, Dr Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Professor Gillian Robinson have carried out an in-depth study into public attitudes towards peace walls — a symbol and constant reminder of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. The report hopes to address a ‘knowledge gap’ in understanding perceptions within local communities closest to the peace walls alongside the wider public. In doing so, it aims to inform any future policy-making process.
The primary means of research were two postal surveys: one focused on residents who live closest to the peace walls in Belfast or Derry/ Londonderry, and another was administered to the general public across Northern Ireland. The report reveals clear disparities of opinion between the general population and local peace wall residents; it also highlights contrasting views between Catholic and Protestant respondents.
Some of the results have been summarised at follows:
In the case of both surveys, well over half of the population determined that they would like to see the peace walls come down. However, two out of three residents local to the peace walls maintained that they are necessary because of the potential for violence, and less than half of local residents claimed they could envisage a future without them.
The report suggests that the peace walls are associated with violence rather than segregation. Over half of the residents who responded expressed their concerns regarding the police’s ability to preserve peace if the walls were removed. For residents, at least, the peace walls are still perceived as fulfilling an important function: maintaining peace and order in their communities.
The report also offers a comparison between the attitudes of respondents based on their religious backgrounds:
From this, it becomes evident that the peace walls have a second perceived function: to protect a sense of identity, community and territory, particularly for those from a Protestant background. In light of recent flag protests, it is obvious that any perceived attack on culture and identity in Northern Ireland can produce dramatic results. If the removal of the peace walls was to be successful, it would require a great deal of work at a grassroots level to ensure residents’ concerns and opinions were given due attention.
The report determines that certain religious and geographical factors can shape views with regards to the function of the peace walls. However, it has also unearthed a unifying opinion:
“64% of the general population believe that peace walls should be a big priority for the Northern Ireland government — and 63% of peace wall residents would like to know more about initiatives and discussions about the peace walls. This shows that there is a huge public appetite for greater engagement between communities and those responsible for peace walls” — Dr Gormley Heenan
The outcome of the survey is varied and it remains clear that segregation is a contentious issue in Northern Ireland whether or not there are peace walls. This was the first time that the general population and those closest to the peace walls have been asked their views on the issue, and the report has called for more interaction within communities on such sensitive issues to develop knowledge, understanding and become better informed.
The Northern Ireland Executive’s current Programme for Government (2011–15) has listed as one of its key commitments under priority 4 to ‘actively seek local agreement to reduce the number of ‘peace walls’, and they expect to see a reduction in the number of interface structures by 2014/15. (Peace Walls ‘As Contentious As Ever’ — Ulster Research)
Link to full report: http://www.ark.ac.uk/peacewalls2012/
Link to video of lecture: http://www.ark.ac.uk/Seminars/