Monday, May 14, 2012

Thoughts of an American on the Walls in Belfast

Thoughts on "the wall" in Belfast by an American:

For those who don't already know, there are walls in Belfast and other Northern Irish cities and towns.

The Interface Walls demarcate the separated housing of the Protestant-Unionist- Loyalist community from the Catholic-Republican-Nationalist community.  The walls grew out of the barriers of debris that were established during the height of the Troubles in 1969 when both sides wanted to keep those from the other side who were bent on violence from entering their communities. These debris walls were originally reinforced by barb wire by the British military units which came into Northern Ireland. The government calls them Peace Walls to emphasize the security the walls impose.

The walls vary in size and construction material. They are all substantial and do block movement. The tallest ones prevent bottles, stones, etc. from being thrown over.

These walls cut off many streets that formerly were complete. There are large metal gates at certain larger streets which are sometimes open during the day and closed at night.  There are other streets where there are both large metal gates and narrower pedestrian gates.  Most days the pedestrian gates are open to foot traffic, but have restricted and crooked paths through the openings which prevent motorcycles and scooters from speeding through so those devices cannot be used for quick getaways from assassinations or other violence.

The large metal gates at certain locations can be opened for parades which celebrate victories of one community over the other, in battles centuries ago.

Where there isn't a physical wall such as out in the rural areas, there are invisible but clearly known lines between the communities.

Approximately 1,300 families or individuals were forced to move in Belfast in 2009 because of threats, intimidation, and violence for living too close or within an area where one side or the other thought they shouldn't live.

Rather than walls being taken down over the decades, more walls were constructed until as late as 2010. Politicians used wall construction to garner good will and votes from the community they support.

Both communities have community safety as their prime concern, but there are empty properties on the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist side in Belfast and every property is occupied in the Catholic-Republican-Nationalist side.  Many from the Catholic-Republican-Nationalist community are on wait lists for housing.

Some residents we spoke with said many residents don't feel the walls are necessary except during the marching season.  Tensions escalate during marching season, and people feel the walls prevent gangs of one community or the other from venturing into the opposite community bent on intimidation or violence, especially at night.

Our Volunteers In Mission group experienced the aggravating side of the gates and walls when we stayed past 9 PM at a Protestant church. visiting after a service.  The gate we wanted to use to get back to our hotel, which essentially is in a Catholic area, was closed and we had to walk to another gate which was still open.

At the session about the five decades affected by the Troubles, we were told about a family that owned a house which was on the interface early in the development of the walls. They used to let their friends from the opposite community through the "wall" by having them pass through the house. So there have always been those who understood the separation of communities was unnatural.

Thinking about all the aspects of the walls, from the perspecitive of an American and as a practical person with an idealistic bent, it has been easy for me to focus on how the walls need to be removed as part of the reconciliation process.  Still, the walls are also a manifestation of the deeper problems.

One of the youth workers at the Forthspring Community Center said something which put my attitude and the entire problem in a new perspective. He said, "If we could magically remove the physical walls in the city, it likely wouldn't solve anything, until the walls in peoples hearts are dissolved."