With Belfast City Council recently examining how Belfast’s peace lines could be removed, Natasha Murtagh gets to grip with their history
When the Northern Irish peace lines were being built, Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Freeland stated; “The peace lines will be a very temporary affair. We will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city.” Yet more than forty years later, the lines remain standing.
There are currently fifty-three Northern Ireland Office-maintained peace lines in the region – forty-two in Belfast, five in Londonderry, five in Portadown and one in Lurgan. The majority were built in North and West Belfast, the most famous of them being the wall separating the loyalist Shankill Road and the republican Falls Road in West Belfast. Unlike the Berlin Wall, Belfast does not have one continuous stretch of brick and mortar. Instead, there is a variety of structures ranging from the small-standing 1.5 metres to the daunting 7.6 metres in high conflict areas.
The first barriers were built in 1969 following The Northern Ireland Riots and the start of the Troubles. “They were primarily designed to minimise inter-communal violence between the warring Unionists and Nationalists,” explains Dr. Laura McAtackney, a postdoctoral research fellow at the John Hume Institute of Global Irish Studies at UCD. Under the duress of mounting sectarian violence, residents were complaining that they simply didn’t feel safe and sporadic barriers began to be constructed in order to divide the ongoing ethnic conflict.
Although commonly referred to as ‘peace walls’, Dr. McAtackney believes that this description can be misleading. “They went up for different reasons in different places, which I think a lot of people don’t realise,” she begins. “The walls aren’t just to stop conflict; they were also built to stop communities moving, particularly in North Belfast where the Protestant population was decreasing. It was to more or less to stop Catholics coming in to the area. They wanted to segregate people without looking like you’re segregating people.”
“Take the West link carriage way coming into Belfast from the M1, it was more or less built to stop Protestant and Catholic communities interacting together. The terminology is quite different… You’ve got peace lines, peace walls, segregation through urban planning and environmental interfaces. There is no generic meaning, which is why the term ‘peace line’ is quite good because they’re not all walls.”
Over the years, murals have been painted on the harsh concrete barriers and have transformed some of them into works of art as well as historical artefacts. Though many of these murals are the work of paramilitaries and are often seen as provocative, others were put up by community development projects to bring a friendlier feel to a permanent state of antagonism. “The small amount of community groups that are out there are very good and are increasingly trying to get a lot more interaction between the different sides, particularly with young children and teenagers,” Dr. McAtackney remarks, pointing out they have an essential role to play in bringing hope to a fractured community.
“The bottom line is it’s not going to get any better with the walls there, it’s simply not attempting to work through their problems,’ Dr. McAtackney says when asked to predict what will happen in the future. “Maybe taking the walls down completely is too drastic, but we could at least lower them or replace the concrete with fencing so that you can see through them into the other communities. It’s a small step but at least it would be moving forward.”
A survey taken earlier this year by the US-Ireland Alliance, a non-profit organisation aimed at informing Americans about Irish affairs, found that 81% of respondents who live near peace lines wanted them to come down, which suggests they may not remain a permanent fixture. However, only 21% felt that now was the time to do it and Dr. McAtackney found that many people she interviewed were still “living in fear that if the walls come down, troubles and complications will just start all over again.”
This has not stopped Belfast’s leading political parties attempting to create a strategy for the removal of the peace lines but it does perhaps explain why no concrete plans can be agreed upon. The peace lines may not be solving wider social problems but, in the eyes of many locals, they have kept the peace more effectively than the police have. Although many members of the affected communities want to progress towards reconciliation, it is evident that the fear of potential violence is a stronger force that continues to prevent any consensus being reached, at least for now.