Northern Ireland: can the “peace walls” be torn down?

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Le 10 avril 1998, “l’accord du Vendredi saint” entre  les  “unionistes” protestants  et les républicains catholiques, qui souhaitent le rattachement de l’Irlande du Nord à la République irlandaise, mettait un terme à trente ans d’une guerre civile meurtrière et laissait espérer une cohabitation apaisée entre les communautés protestante et catholique. Mais aujourd’hui, à Belfast, des murs, hauts de plusieurs mètres, censés préserver la paix, continuent de séparer les deux communautés.  

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“Peace walls”, “peace lines”, “urban interface”, here are some of the words used to describe the walls erected to separate Protestant and Catholic communities  in Belfast.

To better understand the situation, the context in which context these barriers  were built needs to be reminded. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland is not new. But when in 1921, Northern Ireland became British the conflict between the communities took a new turn. On the one hand, the Catholics wanted  Northern Ireland to become Irish. On the other hand, the Protestants wished that Northern Ireland remain a part of the United Kingdom. This is how the conflict which is still tearing Northern Ireland started. In summer of 1969, a new spike in violence  between Unionists and Loyalists hit the country. Scores of houses and businesses were burnt-out, most of them owned by Catholics. In addition, thousands of mostly Catholic families were driven out of their homes. The British Army was deployed to restore order and peace lines began to be built to separate the two sides. These walls were supposed to be temporary. But fifteen years after the ‘Good Friday’ peace agreement, these “peace lines” keep disfiguring the landscape of the Northern Irish capital.

But this situation should change. Indeed, on May 9, Peter Robinson, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, announced that the walls were to be destroyed by the end of 2023. This demolition is supposed to be a milestone in the process of national reconciliation. According to the Northen Irish leaders, these barriers are an aberration. Martin Guinness , one of the former leaders of the “Irish Republican Army” (IRA), the armed wing of the Catholic separatists who fought against British domination in Northen Ireland for more than 30 years, declared that the presence of the walls after the peace agreement had been signed was ridiculous. In addition, the international public opinion and the inhabitants of Great Britain see the “peace lines” more as walls of shame. Indeed to them these walls represent the sectarism, the hatred and the violence of a time that many people would like to forget.

But from the 99 physical barriers in Belfast the one that will be the most difficult to tear down is the psychological barrier. Indeed, the peace lines have made the communication between Catholic and Protestant citizens impossible. Consequently a real reconciliation between the two communities seems complicated today. Nowadays, if in theory peace was signed, in practice, Catholics and Protestants haven’t solved their problems. They just carry on their lives separately. They don’t go to the same schools, they don’t practise the same sports and even if the walls include some gates opened at some hours of the day, they carefully avoid using them. Thus, far from easing tensions, the peace lines have somehow spread the hatred by clearly designating the enemy: those who live on the other side of the wall. Besides, by making any contact between the communities complicated, the walls have also fueled fear. Thus, most of Belfast’s inhabitants remain attached to the wall because in their minds, only these physical barriers can guarantee their safety. And on both sides, Protestants and Catholics agree that it may not be the right time to dismantle the barriers. From their point of view peace is still too weak and the situation too tense.

The most important challenge for Northern Ireland today is first to achieve the destruction of the psychological walls so that the demolition of the physical ones can happen smoothly.

Mathilde DALLEAU

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