Imagine if the peace walls came down @ImagineBelfast
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Northern Ireland Foundation
23 March 2017

Ulster University hosted the workshop ‘Imagine if the Peace Walls Came Down’ as part of the 2017 Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics.

Facilitated by Ulster University Director of Community Engagement, Duncan Morrow, and lecturer Jonny Byrne, the event combined information and ideas to create insightful dialogue about potential peace wall removal.

Morrow opened the workshop by discussing the 2013 strategic political initiative to remove the interface barriers by 2023 — within ten years. Yet, four years have passed with little progress.

The fabric of the peace walls is the symbolic centre for change in government and has become the target of political attention. Directing the focus toward physical manifestations of division enables progress to be measured. Removal of barriers, in the political mind, equals social progress toward a more integrated society.

The walls themselves draw attention to safety and security, highlighting the sense of separation between the communities through actual, physical division. Citing surveys, Morrow informed the group that in a recent study 72% of Protestant and 55% of Catholic respondents believed peace walls functioned as protection against violence. Significantly, 61% of all of the respondents stated that the walls made them feel safer.

Demographic differences are crucial in understanding the peace walls at a local level, and there is a significant difference in the function of the peace walls between the communities. A large portion within the Protestant community feels that they are a dying community and that the walls are necessary in order to celebrate their culture freely, whereas those who identify as Catholic at interface areas report overcrowding and inequality because of the walls.

Morrow invited the room to discuss the benefits, if any, of the interface barriers, and whether or not those benefits can be delivered without the walls. Groups shared a variety of answers for the first question: solidarity amongst communities, sense of security, political territory, and tourism, but most stated their answers hesitantly, acknowledging that these were not necessarily positive effects of the barriers.

Without the walls, participants responded that there would be need for more shared space at interface areas, specifically focusing on children. Youth-focused programming and integrated schools would be important in shaping a wall-less Northern Ireland.

Most importantly, Morrow argued, were not the barriers themselves, but what will be affected if and when they come down: community safety, politicians, etc. It is not the walls that will react, but the communities. Benefits need to be a part of the destruction of the walls; otherwise there is no incentive for support from interface communities.

So, what happens for the communities when the peace walls come down? As of right now, there is no proof within interface communities that it will be safe. It is difficult to show the momentum toward peace. There is too much invested in segregation – politics, institutions, identities – and the fear is increasing under the threat of insecurity.

The walls themselves are a symbolic gesture of deeply entrenched segregations, and what we find at the walls are socially and economically deprived communities labelled as ‘interface communities’.

The issue with the removal of interface barriers is not in security, it is a social planning issue, Morrow concluded. What do we put in place of the walls? What do these communities need? The Department of Justice will not face consequences for removal of the walls; community planners will be left to respond in the aftermath.

Duncan MORROW

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