Last week, Belfast tore down its first peace wall. These brick and wire boundaries were strung across roads, parks and even backyards during the period of the Northern Irish Troubles, in a bid to create manageable barriers between the province’s warring communities. With the walls in place, both sides of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide found respite from daily tension and violence on their doorstep. Now, 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement that brokered a peace deal for the region, it’s time for these relics of former strife to come down. By 2023, all of Northern Ireland’s 48 peace walls (most of them in Belfast) will be demolished, ushering in a new era in which the province’s communities can live in both proximity and harmony.
That’s the aspiration at least, and a noble one at that. But while it’s true that inter-communal violence has dropped greatly and attitudes shifted in recent decades, the reality that Belfast’s peace walls have both shaped and reflected is complex. The walls don’t just prevent street violence. The practical and psychological barriers they have put up have fostered a sense of stability that, while ultimately untenable, will require delicate renegotiation.
Before we look at why, it’s important to understand exactly what the peace walls are. They aren’t grand Berlin Wall-style ramparts bisecting the city. Rather they are small barriers that mark frontiers between the city’s Protestant and Catholic communities, but which are nonetheless permeable. Some have gates that now open by day, while it’s possible to get round all of them if you take a detour. The purpose they served in the past was to remove sites for potential tension and street battles. By making it harder for neighbors to fight neighbors, they let both sides of the sectarian divide make it through troubled times with a degree of reduced tension.
But even though the violence has died down, the walls still won’t be easy to get rid of.
“The problem is not one of violence, it's one of demography,” says Peter Shirlow, director of Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies. “The Protestant community is in demographic decline and that is due to a whole range of factors. Protestants, for example, are more likely to be socially mobile and to move out of the city [to the suburbs and exurbs]. They are demographically more vulnerable because they have a population with a high share of senior citizens, and a lower share of young families and children.”
Catholic communities, while still an overall minority in Northern Ireland at just under 41 percent of the total population, have a higher birth rate and consequently a smaller aging population share. According to Shirlow, this has led some Belfast Protestants to fear that removing the peace walls will see them lose their communities, as Catholic residency spreads beyond the borders formerly marked by the peace walls.
“One thing you hear a lot in Protestant communities is, ‘The wall comes down, then they [Catholics] will move into our community and we will continue to move out,’” says Shirlow. “What we have in the Protestant consciousness is that if these walls are taken away, then their communities will simply evaporate, because they're not demographically robust enough to allow these divisions to be reproduced.”
It is indeed likely that removing all the peace walls could ultimately lead to more geographical mobility within Belfast.
While Catholic neighborhoods are typically more densely populated, Protestant ones possess a higher proportion of vacant properties, as younger, socially mobile people who grew up in these areas move to the city fringe. Catholics are more likely to be on the waiting list for public housing but cannot at present be housed on the wrong side of a peace wall. Demolishing these walls would indeed likely mean the spreading of Catholic residency across the former lines of demarcation.
Reducing such sharp divisions is—if violence is avoided—only going to improve the viability and cohesion of Belfast as a whole. It would, after all, only mean returning the city to the degree of inter-communal mixing it experienced before the Troubles erupted, and greatly reduce costs for a system obliged to maintain separate communal facilities.
Such a shift would still only work if attitudes move along with residency patterns. As the collapse of inter-communal violence has shown, Northern Ireland has made huge progress in this area already, as former enemy camps have started working with each other in an atmosphere of greater forgiveness and tolerance. This process should become easier as the period of open conflict recedes further into memory.
“Younger populations don't seem to have the same problems as their parents and grandparents would have had,” says Shirlow. “It does seem that people are moving across these boundaries more, for shopping, consumption and cultural activities in a way that they didn't do before. The only way you can help to manage the process [of reintegration] is to instill the idea that the movement of people within society is also an aspect of equality, a response to need.”
There’s thus every reason to hope that, over a period of decades, the divisions that the peace walls represent will become softer and more fluid. Removing the walls themselves is a step in the right direction, but to create a more integrated future, Belfast is going to need more than just a wrecking ball.