Gated entry, Alexandra Park. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

According to the CAIN (Conflict Archive in the Internet) website, peace lines or peace walls are “physical barriers between the Protestant/Loyalist community and the Catholic/Nationalist community in certain areas in Northern Ireland”. The interfaces, or peace walls, create what are called interface areas. They are defined as “the intersection of segregated and polarized working-class residential zones, in areas with a strong link between territory and ethno-political identity.” Interface areas are sometimes the sites of sectarian violence, when they become known as flashpoints.

Interface. Cupar Way, West Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

These walls are usually constructed of concrete, stone and/or steel, and can be over six meters tall. Some even have gates in them that allow passage during the daytime and are closed at night. Accompanying the creation of these interfaces were interface community groups: those residents who lived alongside the walls. Although interfaces are widely acknowledged as features of most urban areas across Northern Ireland, it is also important to recognize that segregation is a feature of life in all parts of the country, including rural communities.

The first peace walls grew out of barricades that the local communities erected themselves during periods of intense rioting in 1969, with the outbreak of the Troubles. When the British Army was deployed in August of that year, it replaced the existing barricades with barbed-wire barriers of its own. They were built as temporary structures, naively meant to last six months. However, these were replaced with more permanent structures: wider, longer and more permanent. Meanwhile, there has been a transformation in the aesthetics of peace-lines construction: a shift from grey steel fences to multi-toned brick walls, landscaped with trees and shrubs and coloured fences. Such barriers increasingly have a sense of permanence in the urban landscape.

The earliest barriers began to be constructed after severe sectarian rioting in 1969 in Belfast: between the Lower Falls and the Shankill; around the Short Strand area of East Belfast; and on Alliance Avenue, Duncairn Gardens and Manor Street in North Belfast. Again in 1980, there was a major burst of barrier construction in North and West Belfast. Depressingly, there were further barriers erected even after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Most are located in Belfast, but are also in Derry/Londonderry, Portadown, and Lurgan.

Interface backstop. Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Interfaces vary in their form, style and visibility. Some are marked by little more than a turn in the road, a local landmark, a shop, or even a park. These may be invisible to those unfamiliar with the area. But the most widely recognized walls are the physical barriers or ‘peace-lines’, such as the brick walls and steel fences which divide the Falls and the Greater Shankill; from Divis to Springmartin in the foothills of Divis Mountain; the ones which enclose enclaves like the Short Strand in East Belfast and Torrens in North Belfast; and the peace-line which separates the Protestant Fountain estate and Catholic Bishop Street in Derry/Londonderry.

Roads can also serve as interface ‘markers’; the Westlink, for example, effectively divides Roden Street and Broadway, while Duncairn Gardens functions as an interface between the New Lodge and Tiger’s Bay.

Even public parks have barriers in Northern Ireland. Alexandra Park, in North Belfast, is the only park in Western Europe to be divided, with a three-metre wall and a gate, which is opened for a few hours during the day.

There are also other ways and means by which segregating boundaries are marked out. This includes the numerous low-level yellow barriers used to enclose roads and entries; redevelopment which separates residential areas by the construction of industrial and commercial zones; new road layout or developments; and even the numerous examples of grills and bars used to protect domestic properties.

Interfaces, as zones of tension and violence, are still predominantly viewed as confined to residential areas. They are situated largely within the realm of public housing, and they are primarily a fact of working-class urban life, rather than acknowledged as simply the most visible examples of the social segregation and polarization that pervades Northern Ireland.

People defend their need for a barrier or peace line by claiming that it will provide them with a degree of security against attack from the other side. The barriers and interface areas in general, however, are also a significant locations of violence, and interface communities are frequently the subjects of persistent and recurrent, if often low-level, violence. Violence is a well-established factor of life in interface communities, and such areas experienced much of the extreme violence that occurred over the course of the Troubles.

Although such violence, or the threat of violence, often pervades interface areas, it is also clear that the barriers have been a significant factor in reducing pressure and defusing tensions; in other areas, barriers have served to divert the violence elsewhere. In some areas, violence has persisted even after the construction of a barrier. The presence of a barrier and the consequent clear visual identification of the boundary of the ‘other’ community has served to attract people to the interface with the purpose of attacking the inhabitants who live in or move through that area on the assumption that the victims of such violence will be members of the ‘other’ community. Interface violence is particularly widespread during the summer months, when the marching season and the summer holidays start. In the latter case, it leads young people to maintain the tension levels between factions, from mere slabbering to fights, resulting from boredom or idleness within their communities. This is sometimes euphemistically called ‘recreational rioting’.

Barriers can provide psychological security and help to create a stronger feeling of communal identity and solidarity. At the same time, they reaffirm a physical claim to possession of a specific territory, and therefore increase the feeling that there is no need for communities to talk to each other. The coincidence of local territory with communal identity is such that government and statutory bodies have generally, if unofficially, accepted that it is not yet possible to engage in social geographical re-engineering to remove peace lines (e.g. to build new houses or to reduce the potential for disorder).

The barriers give interface areas a distinctive physical appearance, which is reinforced by the frequent presence of bricked-up, derelict buildings, empty spaces, and graffiti and vandalism. Interface areas are thus both marginal and marginalized areas. By their very nature, they are on the edge of a community’s territory, and as a consequence, they tend to be regarded as less desirable places to live. One result of this marginalization is that interface communities typically experience a damaging combination of social and economical disadvantages.

Troubles Tourism. Cupar Way, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

The peace walls in Belfast have become a significant source of tourism, as visitors are curious not only about the history of the Troubles symbolized by the barriers, but also about the artistic depictions displayed on them.  For example, the peace wall that runs between Bombay Street and Cupar Way has become one of the city’s top attractions. These peace walls are plastered with murals that depict everything from Irish historical events to freedom advocates such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. This ‘conflict tourism’ is an industry with black taxi tours driving customers to inspect these peculiar sites, while local residents carry on living.

The big question within the greater population is if Northern Ireland is ready for peace walls to be removed. In 2011, the Northern Ireland Executive outlined a key commitment as seeking “local agreement to reduce the number of peace walls” in their “Programme for Government 2011-2015”. This included the development of an interagency group that would collaborate on this commitment.

Two years later, then First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness set a target of removing Northern Ireland’s peace walls by 2023; this target is a part of a larger set of proposals, commonly referred to as “Together Building a United Community” (or T:BUC), aimed at addressing existing divides and improving community relations. The section on interfaces outlines the desire to move from “contested spaces” to “shared spaces”, while still ensuring “the ability of people to celebrate their culture”. For a variety of reasons, including the collapse of Stormont in 2017, necessary collaboration with local communities, and a focus on other issues (such as Brexit), progress on removing barriers has been limited since the introduction of the target removal date in 2013. The Belfast Interface Project, which seeks to “support the development of creative approaches towards the regeneration of Belfast’s interface areas”, notes that from 2012 to 2017, only 6 barriers have been completely removed, with an additional 2 barriers being partially removed, 3 barriers being reclassified from security barriers, and 11 barriers being “reimaged” or physically altered. In addition to mounting suspicions regarding the feasibility of the 2023 target, the BIP data shows that 21 structures were unaccounted for in Stormont’s assessment. 

For those who live near a peace wall, the barriers have been normalised in their mindsets; these residents aren’t clamouring to bring them down. However, the International Fund for Ireland found that there is a gradual increase in the view that barriers are less necessary, with 25% of respondents to a 2019 survey stating the barriers held “no positives” as compared to 16% in 2017. Additionally, 36% of respondents cited “improved security in the area” and 31% cited “improved security for property” as actions that could lead to support for barrier removal. Nevertheless, 68% of respondents found benefits in keeping the barriers, which showcases the remaining obstacle of garnering the support of both communities. The hope is that one day the walls will come down, but most are sceptical about the promises made in Stormont to eliminate them all by 2023.

Additionally, in 2019, Peacewalls 50, an international conference and event that marks 50 years since the construction of the first ‘peace wall’, was held in Belfast; the event aimed to bring together local residents, policymakers, and academics for a discussion surrounding both the history and future of interfaces, especially with regard to the Northern Ireland Executive’s fast-approaching goal of removing all barriers by 2023.

There are expectations to modernize Belfast, as the city has to compete with other major cities, and for that, a divided ghettoized society does not attract investment. Nevertheless, the political consensus is that the time is not right now to take down some peace walls.

People living near peace walls still don’t feel secure enough to bring them down, as there is fear for community safety, as well as fear of the unknown. Some neighbours even wish to make them bigger in certain places.

For some families, interfaces mark where beloved ones lost their lives. And for others, there are concerns about anti-social behaviour. People want to be safe, and it doesn’t mean that they hate their neighbours. The biggest walls to be addressed are the ones in people’s minds. And what they remember is the gunshots and the bombs in those areas.

Northern Ireland’s peace walls won’t be taken down in the way the Berlin Wall was. The process will be more likely to be gradual and consultative, perhaps hardly noticed by many, except of course by those who have lived near them and have endured them most.

Research by Ignacio ÁLVAREZ PRIETO and Janna TOBIN

Image: “Gated Entry (Alexandra Park)” by Allan LEONARD used by license CC BY-NC

Last updated: 5 June 2021

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