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The Peace Walls and Peace Process of Northern Ireland

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The peace walls and the peace process in Northern Ireland

        Popular Essay for Religion and Politics II

[pic 1]

Pic 1: Part of one of the walls through Belfast suggesting that peace can only be obtained slowly.

Roos Feringa



Carmen Becker

Dr Erin Wilson

The Peace Walls

"Anyone who believes that change is not possible or that politicians cannot rise to a challenge in Northern Ireland will have been struck–as I was–by seeing Martin McGuinness around the table at Windsor Castle, toasting the Queen at the banquet celebrating British-Irish relations."

This is a quote from Prime Minister Cameron, about the Northern Irish Deputy First minister McGuinness, in a reaction to a poll held by the Belfast Telegraph in cooperation with polling company LucidTalk among 16 to 24-year-olds in Northern Ireland. LucidTalk concluded that only 32,5% of youngsters see their future in Northern Ireland, 65,3% don’t think that there is peace and 69,6% do not think that their politicians are capable of agreeing on a joint future vision for NI. Prime Minister Cameron reacted to this poll saying that this should be a “wake-up call” and that the 48 walls should be taken down as soon as possible. As an example of the ‘good will’ of the Northern Irish politicians and how peace was practically restored between NI and England he referred to how he was struck by seeing Deputy First Minister raising a glass to the Queen during a banquet at Windsor Castle earlier this week.

Yet, this poll concludes that 65,3% among the youngsters asked, feel that there isn’t any peace in Northern Ireland, and 50.3% believe that their politicians are actually either very bad or totally useless. How then, can Mr Cameron claim that the time is has come to take down the walls and start a happy, violence-free living for the people of Northern Ireland, and especially using the toast of a Northern Irish politician that is called ‘useless’ by half of his young citizens as a measurement?

For 47 years, several walls have divided parts of Northern Ireland and especially Belfast. These ‘peace walls’ or ‘peace lines’ were put up, as the name already suggests, to keep the peace between two segments of society in Northern Ireland, namely the unionists and the nationalists. The walls are an attempt to minimise inter-communal violence and have become the ultimate symbol for the violence and segmentation. The conflict involved mostly Protestant "loyalists" who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom against mostly Catholic "republicans" who wished to unite with the Republic of Ireland. (Protestant "unionists" and Catholic "nationalists" shared their respective communities' goals, but tended not to support violence.)

        The peace walls range in length from a few hundred meters to over 5,5 kilometres, and are fabricated from iron, bricks and steal and are up to 7,5 meters high. Some walls have gates (sometimes manned by police) that are open during the day but shut at night. The walls have been erected after the Northern Ireland riots and ‘the Troubles’[1] in 1969. They were intended to be temporarily structures to maintain peace and be only up for about six months. Due to their effectiveness they however have become wider, longer and more permanent, from 18 in the early 1990s to 48 today. They stretch in total over 34 km and most are located through Belfast.

Negative peace

Walls have been used as peacekeepers several times in history; think of for example the Berlin wall, the wall in the Western Sahara, or the fence between Israel and Palestine. They are great solutions for reinforcing ‘negative peace’. Negative peace refers to the absence of violence. When, for example, a ceasefire is enacted, a negative peace will ensue. It is negative because something undesirable stopped happening (e.g. the violence stopped, the oppression ended).

        Walls function like a teacher breaking up two little boys fighting and putting them both on each side of a room where they can still see each other, but the teacher stands in between to prevent them from fighting again. The teacher stopping the boys from fighting by getting in between is an effective solution to prevent the immediate threat of the children seriously hurting each other, but what if the teacher walks away to get some coffee? It is not unthinkable that as soon as the teacher is out of sight, the two boys will jump at each other’s throat again. The same goes for the peace walls, they are a temporarily solution to stop the immediate threat of violence between two or more parties. Fear that the people on each side of the fence will jump each other’s throat the first chance they get after the walls have been taken down, makes that the walls become permanent. In 2019 it will be 50 years after the first wall has been erected and apart from a few violent outbreaks during marches from one party through another party’s part of the city, negative peace has been established. Are the peace walls then a proper, indefinite solution for peace in Northern Ireland?

In a policy brief named ‘Peace walls, public attitudes and impact on policy’ by Byrne, Gormley-Heenan & Robinson, the suggestion is made that the walls aren’t as beneficial on the long haul for public health. The policy brief raises a few problems:

  1. From a security perspective, the peace walls continue to focus negative attention on the devolved administration’s response to communal violence and disorder.
  2. Financially, the peace walls impact on the delivery of services and reduce the potential for communities that have been severely affected by violence and disorder to attract inward investment.
  3. From a good relations perspective, the peace walls continue to emphasise the cultural, political and religious differences that exist across our community.
  4. In the context of health and social wellbeing, each of the neighbourhoods with peace walls in Belfast are in the top 10 per cent of the most socially and economically deprived electoral wards in Northern Ireland.
  5. Finally, from an international perspective, the resilience of the peace walls keeps Northern Ireland in the international spotlight but for reasons that are at odds with the accepted narrative that promotes the success of the peace process. In 2008, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on a visit to Belfast, explicitly connected economic investment and the removal of the peace walls when he stated that ‘the sooner the physical barriers come down as well, the sooner the flood gates of private investment will open’.


The peace walls then have fulfilled their original purpose, stopping the violence, but do create new problems such as poverty, lack of international investors and an extra emphasis on the difference between the unionists and nationalists. The walls, in the long haul, won’t lead to what Galtung called ‘positive peace’ and perhaps it is time for them to be removed. Positive peace is filled with positive content such as restoration of relationships, the creation of social systems that serve the needs of the whole population and the constructive resolution of conflict. It thus focuses both on direct and structural violence. In order to gain positive peace a lot more needs to be done than merely tearing down those walls as in Berlin in 1989 (which was a whole different situation by the way) like Cameron suggests.



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