Posted on January 15 2018
Robert Frost sagely noted that good fences make good neighbors, an admission that keeping a healthy distance and clearly marking my territory versus yours can keep trouble from starting. It developed kind of the other way around in Northern Ireland. In the early part of the 20th century, forces in Ireland banded together to fight for Irish independence from the British rule that had existed since the 1500s. Conflict followed in varying degrees for several years, and by 1922, an Irish Free State had been established, while Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom. The North was populated by a greater percentage of Protestant loyalists, while the Irish Free State was majority Catholic. For several decades, relative calm prevailed under this system. By the late 1960s, however, Catholics in Northern Ireland chafing under British rule began to hold demonstrations to express their displeasure. This led to fears by Protestant Unionists, that brought strong reaction by police forces. The violence and rioting that ensued was the the beginning of “The Troubles,” a period of strife lasting from 1969 to 1998. During this time there were endless guerrilla attacks by the rebel Irish Republican Army against individual Protestants and the troops that Britain had sent to maintain order. Loyalists started their own paramilitary groups, attacking Catholics. Bombings and shootings were commonplace in Northern Ireland, and more than 3,000 people lost their lives in the conflcts. Many more were injured.
The conflict was not a war of armed camps meeting on open battlefields and slugging it out, but a series of surprise attacks or bombings in neighborhoods, followed by reprisals by police or government or paramilitary troops on either side. It happened in the streets in front of “civilians” whose own anger was stoked by witnessing such violence. People of opposing views lived close by one another, and neighbor-against-neighbor violence became so bad that beginning in 1969, walls were erected between these fractious neighborhoods to physically separate the two sides, lessen their interaction, and try to calm the anger. The walls made permanent the barbed wire barriers laid out by British troops, which had replaced the makeshift ramparts the locals themselves had thrown together to fence out the “other.” Having a space known to belong to one side or the other lowered the anxiety of trying to do daily business amongst your enemies. The walls ranged in length from a few hundred yards to more than three miles, sometimes running right through backyards. They did not completely seal off one area from the next, and some had gates that were open by day, but locked at night. Still, they stood from ten to twenty feet tall and were literally concrete reminders of whose turf was whose. Over 100 of these so-called Peace Walls were built in Northern Ireland, most of them in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, where so much of the violence took place.
After countless failed attempts to find a way to peace, negotiations in 1998 produced what was called the Good Friday Agreement, ushering in a tenuous truce. The militant groups each opted to participate in government rather than fight, and since then peace has prevailed, even if it isn’t all sunshine and roses between longtime rivals split by both politics and religion. Nearly two decades later, in consideration of this transition to harmony, there began a movement to bring down the Peace Walls. The first wall was torn down in 2016, with an eye toward removing all of them by 2023, but the idea has been met with mixed reactions. The walls still have strong meaning for an older generation, and while the youth don’t have the memories of the bloodshed, they have grown up with the walls’ presence all about them. The structures may be such a part of the landscape as to be nearly invisible now, but their removal can cause feelings of vulnerability and unease.
This unease is especially true for residents living on the streets immediately adjacent to the walls. These streets, being at what is called the interface, were long the site of conflict and were therefore poorer and less desirable locations. Some in these areas are not eager to see a symbol of their security taken away. Demographics also play into the debate. Protestant families are diminishing in Belfast because they have greater economic ability to leave the urban area for the suburbs. Their smaller families mean that in time, their numbers overall will be relatively smaller, though at this time Protestants are nearly 60 percent of Northern Ireland’s population. Still, Catholic families are generally larger and younger, and in the future their children will come in search of affordable housing, likely to be in the interface areas where Protestants are diminishing. This concerns aging Protestants still living in those areas, and it causes some of them to be against removing the walls.
In a strange way, the Peace Walls also have an economic benefit, as “conflict tourism” has sprouted up: busloads of visitors to Belfast are shuttling around town to view these vestiges of a sad period in Irish history. So there is some pressure to preserve the old barriers, but as Belfast strives to improve business and modernize its cityscape, the forces of economics and the thinking of a new generation will probably eventually outweigh the old fears. It is a lesson though, that when defining territory, the borders in our minds can be nearly as strong as those built upon the ground.