At last, Belfast dares to imagine life after the 30ft ‘peace wall’

Author: By David McKittrick, Ireland correspondent

It has stood for 40 years as a monument to division, a forceful declaration that Northern Ireland’s conflicting nationalities cannot be trusted to live together. A mixture of concrete, metal and wire mesh, it looms 30ft tall. Yet now some in the city have finally begun to think the previously unthinkable and to wonder how it might one day be taken down. This will not happen easily or quickly: it is in fact a project as formidable as the wall itself.

Belfast does not yet know perfect peace but things have improved so much that it is not an impossible dream to think this fixture might eventually be dismantled. A start is being made on planning how and when it might come down.

Everyone knows it cannot happen quickly, and that getting rid of the scores of such walls will be a long, arduous and tricky task. According to nationalist community activist Liam Maskey: “We’ve got to get them down. A new society has to be about relationships, people meeting and mixing. Peacelines hem people in, perpetuate the constant feeling of us and them.”

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the construction of the giant wall dividing Catholic Bombay Street from Protestant Cupar Way. Over the years it has got longer and higher; it looks permanent.

Over the years it has been joined by scores more barriers snaking their way between republican and loyalist ghettos in the west and north of the city. Many more have gone up but none has ever come down.

Some of the newer ones elsewhere have been artfully created as little mini-gardens with tasteful bricks and trellises, draped with creepers and climbing plants. They are sometimes called designer peacelines, but no amount of camouflage can disguise the purpose of the forbidding Bombay Street edifice.

The very idea of removing structures which both reflect and reinforce division is highly sensitive and enough to raise apprehension and indeed alarm in many quarters. Some of Belfast’s citizens have never known life without them and in fact draw comfort from them. Those who live on either side of the Bombay Street peaceline say unexpected things about life in the shadow of the wall. For one thing, almost everyone says it’s a good place to live.

Jean, a Catholic home help, enthuses: “I wouldn’t want to move because it’s a great community, I love it that much. I was born and reared in it and I love it. I think that even if I won the Lotto I would still stay here,” she smiles.

Meanwhile Pamela, a Protestant housewife who lives not far from Jean but has never met her, says: “Some people told us we were moving into a bad area, but we feel very much at ease here. It’s not a bad atmosphere at all. We have a very peaceful peaceline area here.”

In previous times many local people were tense, living on their nerves and wary of strangers. But with the major paramilitary groups now inactive life is much more relaxed, and residents are most hospitable. Both Jean and Pamela’s usual chattiness and relaxed tones of voice instantly change when asked how they would view the disappearance of the peaceline. There is still fear in Belfast, despite peace.

“No, no,” says Jean, shaking her head emphatically. “We wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t live here. We’re safe now with this peaceline ? in fact we’d like to see it higher. Once they take that wall down I wouldn’t be here, definitely not.” Pamela’s reaction was uncannily similar. “I would move, definitely, and I’ve told them that,” she says firmly. “I’ve said to my husband that I would want to be away before that happened. I think there would be trouble, definitely. At the minute I feel at ease ? but if that wall came down I’d be away.” Her husband agrees: “It’s not a lovely thing to see but it gives security.”

Such attitudes are perhaps unsurprising given the district’s exceptionally turbulent past. It was one of the flashpoints where troubles violence first flared up in 1969 and went on for decades. In those days there no barriers between the Shankill and the Falls districts so that when the troubles erupted fierce hand-to-hand fighting broke out in the backstreets.

Houses in five Catholic streets were burnt by rampaging Protestants. Across the city 76 Catholic pubs and off-licences were attacked. Many people became refugees. Of those who moved, more than 80 per cent were Catholic.

Bombay Street was one of the epicentres of the conflict. When the army was sent in to restore order, a Colonel Napier, of the Royal Regiment of Wales, found “areas of the street were ablaze”. One of his officers, Lieutenant Adams, held a Protestant gang at bay with a warning shot and tear-gas. But he could not save Bombay Street, and was “horrified” at the scene.

Nearly every one of the street’s 63 homes was damaged and most of them were destroyed in what locals described as a pogrom. In the aftermath the army put up makeshift barricades, using timber and burnt-out vehicles. These were the forerunners of today’s peacelines.

The sense that the troubles are now over pervades both sides of the peaceline. Catholics have seen major changes to the police force and no longer have the sense that the state discriminates against them.

Bombay Street residents complain that Protestant teenagers occasionally throw over stones and other missiles which damage cars and could inflict serious injury. The stones are often related, one Bombay Street woman explained with a rueful chuckle, to soccer results: “See, if Celtic wins we get it, we get stones. So the women here say, ‘Oh Celtic, don’t be winning’.”

The role of the peaceline has changed. Originally it was to keep out marauding mobs, then later to protect against gunmen with balaclavas and automatic weapons. Today the menace has been reduced to teenagers with stones ? still nasty, but now regarded as anti-social behaviour rather than terrorism.

A senior official source says the divided communities of the Falls and Shankill have “grown up with their backs to each other ? the other side was the enemy.”

He adds: “We have to reverse all that. It was easy to put them up, it’ll be far more difficult to get them down.”

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