On the 9th November 2009, while thousands of people in Berlin were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was standing at the ‘peace wall’ in Belfast, alongside 60 young people. The teenagers, who had grown up beside the peace wall, wore t-shirts, which read: ‘Berlin 1961-1989, Belfast 1969-????’ They were making a clear statement that they wanted to see a future without walls.
In 2011, more than forty years after the erection of the first so called ‘peace wall’ in Belfast, there are now more than 90 separation barriers at interfaces between Unionist and Nationalist communities. For more than four decades separation barriers have been used as a security response to inter community violence. The barriers include walls, fences, security gates, derelict ‘buffer zones’ and barriers that have been planned into the roads infrastructure and urban regeneration programmes. The erection of separation barriers began in 1969, continued after the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and has continued since the establishment of a devolved power sharing government in 2007.
Although the level of violence at peace walls has drastically reduced, they remain a magnet for sporadic disturbances and riots, usually involving children, who have no memory of the Troubles. The result is stress and insecurity for local residents and fear at the very suggestion of a protective barrier being removed.
There is now cross party political agreement that the peace walls need to be dismantled. However, the Northern Ireland government has not yet adopted a strategy to begin the process of removing these barriers.
I believe the peace walls in Belfast will come down, but it is going to take us much longer to remove the walls than it took to erect them.
Of course, separation walls never worked in Northern Ireland. They never stopped the violence during the Troubles and today they only sustain sectarian tensions and division. In 1969 we were told they were a temporary measure at the height of intercommunity violence. We were told our walls would not be permanent, like the Berlin Wall. Forty years later the peace walls of Belfast have outlived the Berlin Wall.
The problem is that the walls became a permanent solution to a temporary problem. They are a crude and lazy security response to give the appearance of security. However, they are an unimaginative and ineffective response to poor inter community relations. Separation walls harden the boundaries between enemies. Walls ensure that you cannot see or contact the people on the other side and this makes it is easier to dehumanise the enemy, which simply perpetuates the conflict.
Walls that appear to protect in the short term end up increasing insecurity in the longer term. At worst, separation walls are deliberately and cynically used to segregate, exclude and oppress.
There are many moral, social and economic arguments against building separation walls. However the strongest argument is the pragmatic one – walls simply don’t work. No wall is ever high enough, long enough or strong enough to completely separate, protect or exclude. Walls are ultimately ineffective.
In the 21st Century I believe we need more strategic thinking and greater courage to enable us to find imaginative, effective and humane alternatives to the obvious failure of the separation walls of the past.