FOCUS on Walls: Northern Ireland

Constructed by settlers over 400 years ago, the border walls at Derry, Northern Ireland, draw tourists year-round to the last completely enclosed city in Ireland, reports The Northern Ireland Foundation.

However, walls do not just border Derry — they run through it. These internal ‘peace walls’ are physical barriers constructed during the Troubles to separate Protestant-Loyalist and Catholic-Nationalist communities to mitigate inter-group violence, reports The Northern Ireland Foundation. Derry and Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, house a majority of these walls.

Dr. Dermot Quinn, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at Seton Hall University’s Department of History, emphasized that the walls are not the cause of divisiveness between these two groups, but rather the effect of preexisting tensions.

“The walls divide and make permanent what are essentially tribal divisions in Northern Ireland,” Quinn told the Diplomatic Envoy. “They manifest in the exterior what is an internal reality. Since the Troubles, there has been great effort to physically divide these communities.”

The Troubles was an ethno-nationalist conflict beginning in the late 1960s between Protestant-Loyalist and Catholic-Nationalist groups that claimed over 4,000 lives, reports The Northern Ireland Foundation. The peace walls were first erected in 1969 between Lower Falls and Shankill in Belfast, with another period of major construction occurring in the 1980s.

Peace walls were initially intended to be temporary structures, reports The Northern Ireland Foundation, but even after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ends the Troubles conflict, new peace walls were built and the old were fortified.

With this relatively new construction, it is doubtful that the Northern Ireland Assembly’s recent promise to eliminate all 108 peace walls by 2030 is feasible, reports BBC. Only two walls have been removed, one in 2016 and another in 2017, and those were efforts made by individual communities, not government initiative, according to The Guardian.

A further complication to their removal is that, in some ways, the walls do effectively prevent violent clashes, argues Professor Quinn.

“That’s the paradox of the walls,” says Quinn. “Pragmatically, they served their purpose of keeping violence between groups at bay, especially in terms of gang violence. But there is also the issue of whether or not they are reinforcing divisive ideas.”

Since their construction 50 years ago, the walls have become part of daily life in Northern Ireland. They divide parks, cut through neighborhoods, and have become a canvas for street muralists, reports The Washington Post. The murals span both sides of the walls, depicting political and religious motifs of each group.

“The walls have become part of the landscape, and the murals show an appropriation of the wall by each side,” says Quinn. “But today, there is a greater effort to end sectarian divides. People are now asking: Why are the walls still there, are they necessary, and why haven’t they been removed?”

Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster, told The Guardian that Catholics view peace walls as a barrier to the development of community, whereas Protestants see the walls as protecting their way of life. If the walls are to ever come down, it must be in a manner that Protestants do not perceive as threatening their existence.

Quinn found Bryne’s observation interesting, as it seems to describe the way Catholics and Protestants view themselves and their history within Ireland.

“This is just another example of how the walls serve as a metaphor for the way people view the world,” he says. “Walls don’t tell people what to think or how to think, rather they serve as proof for the way people are already thinking. Before the walls come down, mental barriers must first come down.”

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