Faces stared at me everywhere I went on my first full day in Belfast. Faces on plaques, murals, posters: memorials to the murdered literally line the main roads in Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods throughout the city. From this cue, I immediately understood that the conflict and violence here was much more personal. Confronting that was scary; the threat felt real but I couldn’t read the neighborhoods and their history well enough to know who had a target on their back. I knew there was safety in my naivete.
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.
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.