Hidden barriers: A tour of Belfast’s secret peace lines

Hidden barriers: A tour of Belfast’s secret peace lines
by Allan LEONARD
23 March 2022

As part of the Imagine Festival, a tour of a selection of hidden interfaces of Belfast was offered. David Coyles, a researcher at Ulster University, hosted a bus tour that took several dozen participants to three case study locations.

As we set out on our journey of discovery, Coyles explained how the phenomenon of hidden barriers goes back to 1976, during the height of the Troubles. The release of classified documents revealed the discussions amongst government officials at the time. He gave two dimensions to the situation: political violence and public housing provision.

On both sides of the communal divide, families of a mixed or minority composition were leaving the neighbourhoods that they were living in, either by choice or force. While some Protestant families left Belfast altogether, to live in the likes of Craigavon, Antrim, Bangor, Newtonards, and Carrickfergus, some Catholic families would relocate to other Catholic populated areas in Belfast. A consequence of this was that traditionally Protestant populated areas of Belfast were being depopulated, while Catholic populated areas were experiencing an overpopulation or at least pressure for additional housing provision.

The housing provision at the time was Victorian terraced houses, erected from the 1870s, showing its age and unsuitability for increasing population densities. However, statistics at the time could be misleading, whereby in theory there were vacant houses for Catholic families to move into, in given areas. It’s just these vacancies were where Protestant families had left but were still Protestant populated — a geopolitical conundrum.

Bryson Street. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Our first stop was in the Short Strand area, at Bryson Street, where we disembarked and walked along the 10-foot high brick wall that ran from one end of the street to the other. Coyles told us how in 1976 this wall wasn’t there, nor some of the houses we were looking at. Instead, the roads would have crossed the street, with continuous rows of terraced housing. Essentially, the barrier was erected to forestall Catholic families moving into the more traditionally Protestant populated areas nearby, such as Templemore Avenue. Also, some of the replacement housing was built so that the view from inside looked inwards towards neighbours and not outwards towards the residents opposite the interface. Another dimension within the area is an adjacent site of a former carpet factory, which the Housing Executive bought and intentionally let it go fallow. Indeed, the authorities approved the erection of a commercial building at the part facing Newtownards Road, specifically because it would forever remove the prospect of residential housing being built and occupied by Catholic families.

The next site visit was the Oldpark area in north Belfast, illustrated as an example of the effects of Protestant family depopulation. From the vantage point of our bus seats, we could see the more tightly packed housing of the Catholic populated neighbourhood of the Cliftonville area, with few or no garden spaces, while this Protestant populated area had less population density and more green spaces. Coyles pointed out that a buffer zone was created by creating an industrial estate (Hillview Road), again to eliminate the land being used to build additional housing for the bordering Catholic populated areas.

Mountainhill Road. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Our third and final visit was the Ligoniel area, also in north Belfast. About 1976, the Department of the Environment acquired a greenbelt site with an intention to build housing, but there was massive opposition to this. The authorities’ concern was that if existing families found themselves expelled, then ‘hardline republicans’ might occupy abandoned houses through squatting and cause community tensions. In the end, the minister for housing approved the provision of new housing, but conditions included that there should be no vehicular or pedestrian access between the settlements — a high row of vegetation and fencing segregate the two. Coyles said, “This forms a really effective barrier, with houses separated by 10 metres, you have to go all the way down [Mountainhill Road] and back up Squires Hill Road.” He added that unlike the previous two cases, here there was no pre-existing confrontation; there was no Catholic housing or abandoned Protestant housing; there was no legacy of conflict in the area. He affirmed that current community relations in the area are good, and pointed to the desire to get a disused school playground area into a space for Gaelic football, football (soccer), and rugby. However, “lingering political influences are making that difficult.”

Mountainhill Road. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

In sum, the three cases presented during the tour well demonstrated how policy decisions made during a time of heightened conflict and anxiety can become entrenched, even when the security situation has improved. The work of David Coyles and his colleagues Brandon Hamber and Adrian Grant illustrate that addressing hidden interfaces is just as important as the more obviously visible interfaces, because they have proven to be just as effective in separating communities. One of the recommendations that is detailed in their report, Hidden Barriers and Divisive Architecture: The Case of Belfast, is to establish a 10-year ‘connectivity programme’ for the removal or transformation of 10 ‘hidden barriers’ and re-establish physical connections between the community spaces that they currently separate.

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