“Can we…get through here?”

There’s a lot more to Belfast’s division than the Peace Walls. In addition to the snaking lines of brick, fence and concrete, physical division comes in the form of dual resources that allow people to shop and exercise without leaving the neighborhood, murals and flags that mark territory, and the urban geography itself, which has developed and conformed to the tune of polarization.

Today I did an experiment. I walked out of the city center with a very simple premise. Start in the Falls, take every right turn. If you cross to the Shankill, take every left turn. See where you end up. See if this movement is possible. This map shows the lay of the land, and where photos were taken.

I started my walk on Divis Street. My first right turn took me into Finn Square, a quiet collection of houses on a dead-end cul-de-sac. There were brick walls between the houses, and a full-fledged, 50-foot-high Peace Wall behind that. Strike one.

The second turn took me into the Ardmoulin neighborhood. Same story. The wall ran behind houses and crossed the street in the form of a fence that doesn’t open easily. This fence sits perpendicular to a huge Flour Mill complex. This barrier is just as effective. I had to turn around.

I walked next to the ‘International Wall’ on Divis Street, painted with colorful Republican murals frequently alluding to human rights struggles around the world. (Note the reference to Palestinian hunger striker Khadner Adnan in this photo.) It surrounds the rest of the industrial complex.

Finally, I took a right turn that got me somewhere. I followed Northumberland Street through the gates of a Peace Wall that are open by day. I was surrounded by industrial buildings, and the New Life City Church that straddles the no-man’s land. They were holding a vigil when I passed. I took a left on North Howard Link, and quickly came to a sort of horrifying, fenced-off wasteland between the Protestant neighborhood and the Cupar Way Peace Wall. The Catholic community could really use land like this for housing, but it’s on the wrong side of the wall and Protestants won’t hear of it. So it remains a dump, a buffer zone between the neighborhoods. Broken glass jingled at my feet.

I turned right onto Cupar Way. Tourists came and went.

I turned left on Lanark Way and again passed through massive, heavy gates in a Peace Wall. Back on the Catholic Springfield Road, I continued west.

The next opportunity to turn was at the pedestrian gate on Workman Avenue. I crossed into a small neighborhood and, to my dismay, found there was no way to keep moving west. I was being shuffled sideways, back east through the quiet streets. The way is shut. I could not pass.

Back where I started on Lanark Way, the severity of my discovery hit me. Within the distance I covered, there is no way to pass between the Shankill and Falls neighborhoods that is not through a Peace Wall. Every street access point is cut off, whether it be by “Peace Walls,” industrial zones, the layout of neighborhoods, or a combination of all three. The physical division here is much worse than I realized before doing this walk.

Another observation from today’s walk: whose movement do the Peace Walls restrict? Sure, you can get around this massive interface, as I’ve pointed out before, but you have to go to the city center, or farther into the suburban area, tacking on two miles or more to your trip. No problem in a car, but on foot, skateboard, or by bike, this has a significant impact. The interface here restricts pedestrians, people without a car. People who are too poor to own a car. It’s no secret that interface areas also have higher unemployment rates, incidences of violence, and are overall more resource-deprived than almost anywhere else in Northern Ireland. Dare I suggest an element of class discrimination in this scheme?

And so how do we define “Peace Wall?” If the walls around a Flour Mill have the same dividing function as the official walls, should we count it as a barrier? If there are two “Leisure Centers” within half a mile of each other (as there are in Shankill and Falls), I believe that counts as a structural means of separation, too. Division runs deeper than these walls, it oozes out of every aspect of the urban landscape.

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2 responses to ““Can we…get through here?””

  1. Geordi says :

    Hi, I work near the peace wall in Belfast and I find a lot of what you’ve said to be pretty spot-on. The walls are an eye sore and a constant source of contention, a recent study proved there’s no unanimous decision from residents on either side for their removal; people want the walls to come down, but apparently not yet. None the less it’s an intrusive and restrictive barrier between two poor working class communities and does nothing to further community cohesion.

    One sentence however doesn’t seem to match the tone of the rest of the blog and I was wondering about it’s origin; referencing the waste ground near cupar st:

    “The Catholic community could really use land like this for housing, but it’s on the wrong side of the wall and Protestants won’t hear of it.”

    I was just wondering where that info came from? I haven’t heard of protestants blocking redevelopment of the site, and both sides could certainly do with the housing. You had remained quite neutral up to this point and it sparked my interest.

    Hope you enjoy your stay in Belfast and wish more people would make the same effort you have to explore off the beaten track.

    • ktrenerry says :

      Geordi, thanks for reading, I’m glad you agree with a lot of my observations. It’s great to hear from someone who lives with the situations I’m trying to understand.

      With regards to the sentence you point out: this is vastly oversimplified information from a professor at Queens University whose research focuses on interface areas. You were right to point out the inconsistency of this sentence. I think a better, more fair way of putting it might be to say that the physical and mental walls would have to come down in order for land development in these areas to be on the table, and that’s what people (yes, on both sides) won’t move forward on. So I don’t know that it’s necessarily an issue of directly blocking land development.

      From what I understand, a lot of Protestant neighborhoods are nervous about this kind of development because it could lead Catholic takeover of their neighborhood that Unionists feel threatens their identity. (Again, information from Queens professor, corroborated by information from the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group) That’s what I was trying to drive at with this sentence, but I should have been a lot more specific, thanks for catching me.

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