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The forgotten Walls of Belfast

by L.C.

This month, Europe is celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of its reunification. This reunion between the East and the West of our continent was historically embodied by the Fall of the Berlin Wall. The East had fallen, Europe as a whole gets its rebirth and is reunited. We though, and still think for some of us, that all walls were brought down in this year of 1989. But some walls remain in Europe.

About 1300 kilometers away from Berlin and the challenge of the reunification, the city of Belfast is still divided by walls. There, no will to avoid people fleeing towards another world and another way of life by imprisoning them, but a will to separate communities to prevent a war between them. Here, the 18 meters-high walls from Cupar Way to Falls Road separate West-Belfast, the catholic part of the city, from Shankhill and the other protestant neighbourhoods. The gates on the roads crossing from West-Belfast to Shankhill close at night, open at dawn and remain closed on Sundays.

The gates between West-Belfast and Shankill still close at night and remain closed on Sundays. All rights reserved.

The forgotten walls of a forgotten war

If the Iron Curtain split Europe into a peaceful coexistence (according to Nikita Khrushchev), then the so-called Belfast “Peace Walls” have endorsed a resigned coexistence between two communities. A coexistence made of hatred, frustration and resentment but above all pain. Because the history, small or large, told by the walls is that of separation, closure and conflict between neighbours. Northern Ireland, a British province on the island of Ireland, is no exception.

The walls of Belfast, at first temporary, were built to put an end to a conflict that started in 1968. The political and social discrimination suffered by the Catholics combined with hard economic downturn have broken out into open conflict. Religion then became a vector and a rallying point for frustrations from both sides. This war built walls and did not get any winner, only victims.After a 30-years conflict, the controversial intervention of the British Army within Northern Ireland and more than 3,000 deaths, the walls appeared as a solution for peace.

Since 1998, political walls have fallen

Since the Good Friday Agreements (or Belfast Agreements) on April 10th 1998, the institutional walls that prevented Catholics from being equally represented in the Northern Irish Assembly in Stormont have fallen. The Northern Ireland Assembly will now be based on power-sharing, with a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister from both Catholic and Protestant communities.

Freedom of movement and cross-border cooperation with the Republic of Ireland were established, satisfying the demands of Catholic nationalists, while maintaining Ulster in the United Kingdom, a requirement of Protestant unionists.

The most solid walls are still standing: those of mentalities

If the institutional walls have fallen, the psychologic barriers still stand firm. You cannot simply erase so much pain so quickly. If discrimination has ceased, communities hardly mix. Máire Braniff and Sophie A. Whiting thus showed in their study Gender and Representation in the Democratic Unionist Party in Post-Agreement Northern Ireland that the vote in Ulster is polarised between communities: “The legacy of the Troubles and the structural implications of power sharing have made communal identity the dominating cleavage in Northern Ireland” (p.112). The power-sharing system in Stormont did not end-up in creating a mixed political landscape. People still vote on a community-based preference, their vote changing within their spectrum from soft to hardest Unionists or Republicans.

Will walls finally fall or be reinforced?

The cross-border cooperation and the EU action through the PEACE programmes (programmes for peacebuilding, reconciliation between communities and economic and social progress in NI) for the generation of a Northern-Irish and European-identified youth, and not only catholic or protestant. This deep and hard work, the only one able to bring walls down once and for all, is now endangered.

The British exit of the Union threats Northern Ireland with the return of border controls. These are strictly rejected by the Republicans in the North as they call for a united Ireland. About the possibility of keeping Northern Ireland within the Single Market and out of the British customs union, it would result in a de facto reunification of Ireland and in the creation of a border between NI and the UK. This option is categorically refused by Unionists.

In this context of rise in fears and divisions, there is a serious concern on the peacekeeping in Northern Ireland. With such opposite views on the future of Ireland and no devolved government in Belfast to defend NI’s interests since 2017, how can peace survive?

Violence has already started to come back. The so-called “New-IRA” has launched several attacks on the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). One resulted in the death of the 29 years-old journalist Lyra McKee in Derry/Londonderry because of a stray bullet aimed at PSNI officers. The spiral of violence seems to be triggered, just like 50 years ago.

However, hope emerges from the darkest darkness. Something has changed compared to 1968. The Lyra McKee’s murder showed to Britain and Europe the resilience of the Northern Irish people. All UK political leaders, no matter their political guidance, all Northern Irish and Irish leaders called to respect the agreement and paid respect to Ms McKee. Most importantly, people from Derry/Londonderry protested, united, against the New-IRA and the use of violence.

This is a turning point. This is a breach in the psychological walls. The Northern Irish people are united in their rejection of violence. It can seem anecdotic, but it is a signal: in a time of uncertainty and fall back, some walls are brought down. This is what Northern Irish and Northern Ireland deserve. Let’s hope its leaders will honour the legacy of peace.


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