It’s amazing how the order imposed by walls leads to greater chaos in their midst; this seems like a paradox until you understand that walls do not impose order to begin with, they fundamentally disrupt the fabric of society around it.
The urban decay that surrounded the Belfast Peace Walls was the most visual and obvious instance of this phenomenon I have ever seen.
We were the last ones through the gate before the Peace Walls in West Belfast were closed for the night at 6pm, one year ago today. I whipped around to watch the custodian shut and bolt the heavy metal doors after crossing over. It is actually someone’s job to open and close the Peace Walls. I wonder what side they are on (if any), whether it matters, and how they feel about their job and its contribution to the everyday drama of division vs. integration.
I’m fascinated by the visual language of walls and their aesthetic appearance. I don’t have any grand conclusions to draw here, but it was apparent to me that at outwardly, the Peace Walls appeared the least dangerous of those I visited on this journey. But I also know that means it’s time for a second look. In Belfast, the typical physical deterrents at borders (guards, barbed wire, multilayer fences, consequences to passage) have been internalized by people who live nearby and are complemented unflinchingly by the urban infrastructure. This wall is much stronger than it appears, and much more deadly than a garden fence.
The most famous of the Peace Walls, a menacing structure on Cupar Way, is a frequent stopping point for tourists who are encouraged to ‘add a message of peace’ to it’s already graffiti-strewn face. The Berlin Wall was also a well-known drawing board, and after all, who doesn’t want to be part of history? After spending an hour taking in as much as possible and analyzing the scribblings, I can safely put them in three distinct categories:
1. “I was here.” Nothing fancy, just names, dates, a record of a visit.
2. Religious stuff. Bible quotes, a lot of John 3:16, some Corinthians. I skimmed as they tended to be quite long, but they struck me as appropriate for the context.
3. Actual messages of peace. By far, the most popular was some variation of “make love not war/walls” but a significant number fell into a sub-category I will term “condescending messages of peace.” Below is the worst one, I actually felt enraged when I saw it.
This graffiti strikes me as insensitive, ignorant, intrusive, and a hundred other things but suffice to say this sort of message really bothers me. People just waltz in, take a look, put their thoughts in ink, and leave, returning to houses that will never be threatened by petrol bombs or be in danger of having a 60-foot wall block their sun.
And in general, I’m uncomfortable with the extent to which the Peace Walls and the Troubles have become a tourist attraction. All day along Cupar Way, open-topped buses whiz past, the guides shouting about how they are now crossing the frontline of the conflict. The doors fly open and people spill out and up to the wall, break out their permanent markers and add to the mass of words on the wall. Belfast’s open-topped buses would have been an inconceivable addition to the landscape 15 years ago, but today they blend into daily life oh-so-naturally. The same people will likely not speak to those who actually live in the area, spend time in the neighborhoods, or walk anywhere near the interfaces. They will not take the time to achieve a fuller understanding of Belfast’s past and present with the Peace Walls.
At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I fully acknowledge that my own time here has been incomplete, intrusive, and unusually focused on seeing the worst places in this otherwise beautiful city. I cannot claim separation from this system.
And of course, it’s all right for tourism. Belfast is booming with the Titanic commemorations, a sparkling and busy city center, and becoming a reasonable tourist destination like other European cities its size, for the first time in 40 years. And the people who go on these open-bus tours and the like are certainly learning something about the conflict and its current manifestation. Surely that’s better than sweeping it under the rug entirely?
To make another comparison to Berlin, the biggest question tourists ask of the city today is: ‘where is the Wall?’ I’ve met some Berliners who bemoan the passionate and irreversible destruction of the Wall, thinking of the tourism and educational opportunities that slipped through their fingers. But this is of course wildly inappropriate because the conflict here is not entirely over, and these walls remain a massive problem for the city. Even if the Berlin Wall had been left intact, or more pieces of it, can you imagine the inequalities this would have created in the modern urban landscape? The East would have remained the East solely because of the presence of the Wall and all the mental walls it reinforced.
But I believe the point stands and the question remains: how do we encourage people to visit Belfast, learn about the Peace Walls and the Troubles without people’s lives and neighborhoods becoming an unholy spectacle? How do we achieve a style of tourism that is both respectful and educational? Maybe we could start by putting some of the 7 pounds for a bus tour toward bringing down the Peace Walls they drive by.
Before I arrived in Derry/Londonderry last week, I posted this tweet: “When in Derry/Londonderry do I….A. Avoid saying either name. B. Awkwardly say both. C. Know exactly who I’m talking to and what they say??” I got a helpful response from my friend Dave telling me I could refer to the town as ‘stroke city’ if I wasn’t sure of my company but felt a pressing need for accuracy.
Ah…What’s in a name?
As you may have guessed, the name of this smallish city in the west is a point of contention between Loyalists and Republicans. In fact, the prefix “London” was added in 1613 after the town received a royal charter, so you can see where that might hit some nerves. The official name is Londonderry, but as I rolled through the countryside by bus, I saw countless signs where “London” had been defaced or painted over.
This quiet city was the site of Bloody Sunday, and its residents have not forgotten their not-so-distant past.
There is just one Peace Wall in the town: this anonymous-looking structure, reinforced with dark green mesh fencing. There’s a secondary fence behind this, providing a second layer of protection against bottles, rocks, and heaven forbid, petrol bombs.
The Fountain neighborhood looks like a little suburban fortress, shielded from surrounding enemies by a few fences and walls, and gentrified by small pathways, nice gardening, and identical townhouses. Despite these territorial markings, my Catholic-born, Atheist-in-practice host said he didn’t feel too uncomfortable walking around the area.
I met a Protestant student who refused to accompany us to a bar because he said, half jokingly that “some ex-IRA member will speak Irish to me” and realize his affiliation when he couldn’t respond. I went anyway, and was not surprised to see Palestinian flags and Bobby Sands magnets amongst the decor. I met a Catholic student who works as a door-to-door salesman. He told me he changes to “Londonderry” when hawking at Loyalist homes. You could say that this divide doesn’t seriously affect lives here anymore. Are these examples ‘serious’? An impeded social life and and the slightest shift in vocabulary? The students didn’t seem to care too much, it’s just the way things are. Half a mile from campus, the entrance of the police station was blown up last year with a car bomb. You can see where they have repaired the wall.
This cannon is aimed at the Catholic Bogside neighborhood from the height of the city walls. Historically, Protestants lived inside the city walls while Catholics were confined to slums on their outskirts. The fort remains a symbol of oppression, its black walls, painted with slogans still loom menacingly over the houses.
This statue in the city center is meant to symbolize bridging the divide between the Catholic and Protestant communities, a representative from each side reaching out to the other. My host suggested that the remaining gap between the stoic figures is more significant, answers and questions in the negative space.
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.
This is a Peace Wall in Alexandra Park, North Belfast. It stands perhaps 7 feet high, an inch or two thick, and the other side is supported by wooden beams. This gate is open every day from 9am to 3pm. The entire structure can be circumvented by walking a little ways in either direction.
Compared to the towering, 30-foot-high concrete barriers in Palestine and the barbed wire and minefields of Cyprus, this is nothing. You could jump this fence, probably knock it down with a crowd of people, or just go through it during the day, around it at night.
And yes, there are more intense Interface Areas as well, like this fence that was designed to catch petrol bombs.
Or this crossing point near the Shankill Road.
Yet the point remains that you can get across easily. Compared to the Israeli Separation Barrier, constructed to be a tight net that stops individual terrorists from crossing into Israel (although I don’t think it works that well), or the UN Buffer Zone in Cyprus, a militarized area to prevent armies from advancing across it, the Peace Walls, physically, look like child’s play.
But context is everything and the Peace Walls in Belfast have a vastly different purpose than the walls I have seen thus far, and therefore a completely different appearance. We’re talking about stopping clashes on the street, bombs underneath cars and shootings in bars. We’re talking about defusing tension that explodes into violence at random. We’re talking about physical separation as a desirable goal, if only to prevent people from tearing each other apart.
But what you can see on the ground is only the beginning of what’s going on in people’s heads. The Peace Walls were originally a community-based initiative. People living by them wanted, needed their protection to feel safe during the Troubles. This is legitimate, but a stark realization. Can you imagine the fear that would drive you to build a 30-foot high fence between you and your neighbor?
Today, the fighting is all but over. There were some bomb threats earlier this year, and isolated incidents still occur. But luckily, this is a rarity. Yet tensions can still flare, and the ink on the 1998 peace agreement is way too fresh to be forgotten.
And so it is easy to see why the Peace Walls remain standing. They physically define territory, they keep people in their place without actually doing too much. The walls don’t need to be huge, impenetrable structures because the wall in everyone’s heads is so much stronger. People don’t go ‘over there.’ Bus routes stay within neighborhoods. Schools are either Catholic or Protestant, with few exceptions.
What will it take to reintegrate? Will the Walls come down? And what will that do, if anything, to the ‘wall in the head?’ I’m hoping to get some insight this week from meetings with organizations and activists working to overcome the violent legacy of the Troubles.