The infinite faces of a wall: Teenagers’ perceptions of peace-lines in Belfast

The infinite faces of a wall: Teenagers’ perceptions of peace-lines in Belfast
By Vanessa VASSALLO for Shared Future News
11 March 2013

Teenagers living in Northern Ireland today can be seen as a new generation growing up in a new era, with Northern Ireland’s society slowly coming out of its violent conflict.

The majority of them were born after the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, and certainly after the 1994 ceasefires. Most of what they know about the Troubles is something related to history books and the (often biased) tales of their families and community members.

Although Northern Ireland is now experiencing a new period of progress and development, those young people are nonetheless growing up in a deeply divided society where real peace and integration are yet to come.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive stated that 90% of the housing estates in Belfast are still dominated by one or other community. This separation is also reflected in education, with the same percentage of students attending schools on the basis of religious background.

Spatial segregation is still a major feature in some areas of Belfast, and it is known to significantly affect the everyday activities of its citizens. Peace walls are possibly the most evident symbol of this issue, and a painful, constant reminder of Northern Ireland’s violent past.

Much has been told and written about the peace walls, most of all about the proposals of bringing them down. According to many, bringing down the walls would be the definitive step to moving forward and giving a signal of hope and progress, especially to new generations.

But what do these walls really represent for those young people who have no recollection of that past or have never experienced that violence?

Dr Madeleine Leonard, in occasion of the popular seminar programme at the QUB Institute of Irish Studies, gave a lecture on teenagers’ perceptions of the peace-lines in Belfast. The presentation was part of the findings of a five-year research project run by three UK universities (Cambridge, Exeter, QUB) and named Conflict in cities and the contested space.

The aim of the presentation was to explain how young people living in interface areas of Belfast look at the peace walls that continue to divide communities, which illustrated how their points of view are essential and must be taken into consideration if effective policies on bringing down the walls are to be introduced.

Why should a teenager’s perspective be different from the one of their parents’?

As Dr Leonard pointed out, the use of local public space by young people is more direct. Local space impacts on young people more because they lack the resources to move outside the immediate locality. This is especially true in case of segregated space. Both because of their age and of spatial barriers, they are unable to spread their social networks.

Adults, on the contrary, have the chance to move outside their neighbourhood, mostly for reasons related to employment.

Teenagers are therefore stuck in their area, with little or no chance at all to get in touch with the other community. This has obviously a strong effect on the construction of their social identities. And the social experiences in their youth decide what kind of adults they will be in the future.

Thus, it is crucial to research young people and the opinions they have on their (sometimes more narrow) world.

Methodology included questionnaires (completed by 442 young people from 20 schools from across Belfast), essays (265, on the bad and good aspects of growing up in Belfast), and group interviews (125 pupils were asked about 11 photographs representing the “old” and “new” Belfast).

The following analysis of the responses to the photo prompts and group interviews revealed that young people’s attitudes to peace-lines can be roughly classified in six categories: inclusionary, exclusionary, necessary, ineffective, temporary or invisible walls.

1. Inclusionary walls

A positive dimension was credited to the walls. Many people demonstrate with pride in their community and history and saw the walls as a symbol of this, as well as a form of protection.

“It tells everyone you’re proud to be something” and “You know that you’re safe,” said two boys.

2. Exclusionary walls

Because of residential and educational segregation, the majority of young people experienced a very low level of social interactions with the other community. Lack of knowledge produced fear, which affected each other’s movements across the city. Space was then often politicised into “our territory” and “their territory”.

“They keep the Huns in and the Taigs out,” said a Catholic boy.

“It locks off parts of the city, which is like saying ‘you’re not allowed here’,” by a Protestant boy.

3. Necessary walls

Dr Leonard recalls how the question “Do you feel the Troubles are over?” was answered “No” by a vast majority of pupils in Protestant schools, while “Hope so” was the most frequent answer in the Catholic ones. Due to this feeling of fear and insecurity, peace walls were considered as a necessary component.

4. Ineffective walls

Although perceived as necessary, walls were seen by many pupils as not completely helpful with stopping the riots. This led again to debates about whether or not the walls should stay up, considered that they can be ineffective.

5. Temporary walls

In spite of the fear of violence, the majority of the pupils acknowledged that the walls are meant to come down someday, with 35% overall stating they could be removed in 2–5 years, and 22% in 10 years; 34% said they will never come down.

“They were a good idea at the time but they are not needed today because the behaviour of people has changed over time,” said a boy.

“I think peace walls are so, so stupid. It is a thing of bricks,” said a girl.

6. Invisible walls

This could be the most depressing feature. Some young people were so used to the peace walls that they did not see them as impacting on their daily activities, and therefore were not interested in them. Barriers became a normal, invisible feature of the landscape. Division appeared natural and normal and pupils were little interested in who lived on the other side.

“To be honest, I don’t think they make a difference. They are just paintings on walls,” said a Catholic girl.

In conclusion, Dr Leonard argued that research highlights how segregation and sectarianism are still two key features for new generations, even if they have grown up in a period of relative peace.

In fact, so much have young people constructed their sense of place on their relationships between the two communities, that segregation became absolutely normal to them.

These attitudes, concludes Dr Leonard, must be confronted by the education system, and young people’s ‘ways of seeing’ need to be included and reflected in public policies.

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